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In Texas, mourning those on front lines of blast

The volunteers in the 29-member department raced to the scene of danger, once again. Five never came back.

April 19, 2013|By John M. Glionna, Cindy Carcamo and Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Volunteer firefighter Joey Pustejovsky and his wife, Kelly, celebrated their first anniversary in March. Joey has been missing since the explosion.
Volunteer firefighter Joey Pustejovsky and his wife, Kelly, celebrated… (Fort Worth Star-Telegram )

WEST, Texas — Residents here know the code of sirens, the language of a small-town Texas fire department.

As the big fire trucks lumber along, one blast means they're heading to a small blaze; two means a fire drill or meeting. Then things get serious: Three blasts signify major structural damage; four that a person is trapped inside a vehicle, and nine blasts warn of a tornado.

This week, the volunteers in the 29-member department suited up and raced to the scene of danger once again. And five never came back.

"They spent hours of their free time preparing for this crisis," said Lisa Muska, wife of Mayor Tommy Muska. "And whenever that fire siren sounded, all you had to do was look out the window to see them running from their jobs, hopping on those trucks and rushing off to fight that fire."

On Wednesday night, as they responded to a fire at a fertilizer plant, an explosion tore through the complex and leveled a large swath of this town of 2,800 residents.

At least 14 were dead and more than 160 injured, authorities said.

At hospitals, when the injured first responders were brought in, many doctors and support staff recognized their patients.

In West, grieving comes on a first-name basis.

"I've lost some very, very, very good friends," Tommy Muska told reporters Friday. He's a member of the department too.

As a community continued to grieve Friday, as bodies were pulled from the wreckage near the West Fertilizer Co., two memorial websites, including a Facebook page, were created for the volunteers who gave their time and, ultimately, their lives.

The mayor said five department members and four EMTs died. Authorities did not account for the remaining five dead.

At the department's headquarters just of the town's main drag, men pulled up in pickups to hug others who wandered out of the one-story building. No one spoke publicly.

Instead, it was the Facebook page where many people, both from West and around the country, paid their respects — 56,000 of them so far.

The online memorial features a picture of the town's volunteer firefighters, men and women dressed mostly in red uniforms, with one T-shirt reading "Happy Happy Valley." Superimposed behind them is a sea of flames.

Firefighters in West work regular jobs on top of their volunteer fire duties. Most have families, said Meagan Jares, 17, of West. "A lot of my friends' dads are volunteer firefighters," she said. "One friend found out her dad died when I was standing with her."

Another friend's dad was among the first to be pronounced dead, Jares said.

"We're all really close. We all know each other," she said of the entire town and especially the firefighters. "Now, they're having to dig their own partners out."

She stopped a instant to compose herself. "It's too much. Too fast."

The Facebook page marks that dedication with a phrase below the group photo that reads: "In Memory of West, Texas Firefighters Last Alarm 4/17/2013." There's also a department emblem covered by a thin black ribbon reading "God Bless Our Fallen Brother."

Gov. Rick Perry, at a news conference, said officials expected the number of those unaccounted for, currently at 60, to come down drastically. The high number probably reflects overall confusion and the difficulty of tracking down residents who were hospitalized or who found shelter with others.

Mayor Muska said that he has lost his home and is living at a hotel. If a relative tried to reach him at his old phone, he said, "I could be on that list."

Judge Scott Felton said he'd be surprised if one or two of the missing people are lost to the explosion.

The blast area remained largely off limits, though some residents were allowed to briefly enter to recover a few belongings. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) toured the area with two other lawmakers and said he saw a smoldering ruin, a crater where there had once been a cement foundation.

Cornyn said he also spied a badly crumpled fire truck.

The website honoring the firefighters includes pictures of some of the fallen along with comments from both community residents and people from around the nation.

There's a picture of Jerry Chapman, smiling with his red goatee.

"Jerry Chapman was in class at the time the call went out for the initial fire at West Fertilizer Company," read one comment. "His friends and co-workers say he would not have missed a chance to go help people."

Friends say Chapman was a student whose dream was to become a firefighter. He worked, volunteered and took EMT classes, and would have graduated next week.

"He almost got it," said one poster. "He died doing what he wanted to do."

There's a picture of volunteer firefighter Joey Pustejovsky, standing next to his wife, wearing a yellow firefighter's helmet.

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