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Texas fertilizer plant tragedy: Fallen firefighters 'showed their dedication'

Nearly all the members of the West Volunteer Fire Department in Texas are dead or injured after responding to a fertilizer plant fire that sparked a massive explosion. The tragedy puts a spotlight on the role of volunteer firefighters.


Firefighters use flashlights early Thursday morning to search a destroyed apartment complex near a fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday night in West, Texas.

LM Otero/AP

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With missing teeth and an arm in a sling, one of the few remaining members of the West Volunteer Fire Department paced around the fire station Friday. He barked orders to the few people there – to clean equipment, install new gear from neighboring towns, and organize supplies.

It was an effort to restore a sense of order two days after a massive fertilizer plant explosion killed or seriously injured 22 first responders alone in West, Texas – a town of 2,800 that's still made up largely of Czech immigrants.

Authorities on Friday confirmed 12 dead in all, including 10 first responders. Most of the surviving volunteer firefighters remained in area hospitals, many with serious injuries resulting from a massive blast that some here likened to "a nuclear bomb."

Among the volunteer firefighters lost were a pair of Czech-American brothers, Doug and Robert Snokhous; the city's secretary, Joey Pustejovsky; and Jerry Chapman, a goateed individual who was taking an EMT class when the call came about the fertilizer plant.

The department also lost three trucks in the explosion, pretty much the entire inventory of large equipment. Firefighters from other towns washed the department's sole remaining piece, a small pickup truck tanker, on Friday. The department was manned largely by firefighters from other towns, who are now loaning their pumpers as well as hook and ladder trucks.

The survivors are "numb right now," says Roger Wilson, a police chaplain who served after the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks and who is now responding to the West aftermath.

Seventy-seven percent of Texas firefighters are volunteer, and they're a tightknit community – usually including pillars of the community and known as stalwarts of response. The vast majority of volunteer firefighters are certified, according to the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas.


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