When Morris Bridges got the alert about the West Fertilizer Co. fire on Wednesday, he knew dinner would have to wait. Friends say the 41-year-old fire sprinkler technician and West Volunteer Fire Department rookie kissed his toddler goodbye and told his wife, Carman, that he would be right back.
From miles around West, volunteers suited up and sped toward a fire on Jerry Mashek Road that turned out to be a death trap for Bridges and more than a dozen others.
Of the 14 confirmed by late Friday as victims of the massive explosion, at least nine were firefighters.
The West VFD alone lost five of its 33 members. Other members of the force who died included the town’s city secretary, two brothers who worked at a Waco iron plant, and the fertilizer plant foreman.
Three other volunteers from surrounding towns died, along with a Dallas professional firefighter who lived in West.
“It’s tough, man,” said Steve Vanek, West’s mayor pro tem and volunteer fireman who survived the blast. “All these guys we’ve known all our lives.
One of the firemen that died was a lifelong friend of my son. I’ve known him since he was born.”
Vanek also said Friday that the West Volunteer Fire Department lost three of its five fire engines in the blast, including a new $200,000 pumper. He said the department will rebuild, but in the meantime it will need help from its neighbors.
As the deaths have been confirmed, grief has hit hard in this town of 2,800. West is a town where everybody seems like family, and often are. Same goes for the fire departments in West and surrounding towns, where pulling a hose is a hallowed family tradition.
“You talk about family — I mean, it really is,” Vanek said.
Case in point were longtime West volunteer firefighters Robert and Doug Snokhous. Robert, 48, and Doug, 50, also worked at Central Texas Iron Works in Waco, where they were on the emergency response team.
“They were both amazing professionals at their respective responsibilities and not only long time employees but friends to everyone here at CTIW,” said company president David Harwell in an email to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
West was also grieving the loss of Joey Pustejovsky, who as city secretary was one-half of the regular staff of City Hall. City offices were closed Friday.
‘Always there helping’
“Joey was a very good person,” said Bernice Pustejovsky, 82, a relative who was injured at her home near the plant. “He had a lot of friends. Anytime the fire bell went off, he was there. What else can you say that is any better than that? He was always there helping.”
Cody Dragoo, 50, played a dual role in the response as both the plant foreman and a volunteer firefighter. Before his death Wednesday, he was known for his charity work in town.
“He was the most caring, giving person,” said Karen McCullough, who served on the Cottonwood Water Supply Board with Dragoo. “There would not have been a finer person in that community. I don’t know what I am going to do without him, to be honest.”
Morris Bridges had been in West only three years but quickly made himself at home, signing up last year for the volunteer fire department. His boss at Action Fire Pros in Hewitt said he was a family man with three children, and a hard worker.
“He was a first responder even before he was a first responder,” said Daryl Barber, vice president at Action Fire Pros. “He was always the first guy on the job, always up early, always there to help.”
As in West, firefighting families in neighboring towns were also grieving their losses.
Phil Calvin, chief at Navarro Mills Volunteer Fire Department, lost his son, Perry Calvin, in the explosion. Perry Calvin was 37 and was a volunteer at the Navarro Mills and Mertens departments.
Perry Calvin was a married father of two young children, with a third on the way, said his sister, Penny Sprouse. He was preparing to graduate from Hill College Fire Academy.
The fire department in nearby Abbott lost two young men, including Jerry Chapman, 26, the adopted son of former fire chief Darrell Strickland.
Chapman reportedly worked as a server in Hillsboro and was in emergency training classes when the fire broke out.
Abbott firefighter Cyrus Reed was also among the dead, said Abbott Mayor Harry Nors. He was a single man and commuted to a job in Waxahachie.
“Everybody’s devastated,” Nors said of the deaths. “We’re not doing a whole lot of talking about it. All of us in Abbott really are like a big family. It’s like we lost one of our own family members. I haven’t slept any amount since this happened.”
Response to the fire wasn’t limited to the volunteer fire departments, and neither was death.
Kenny “Luckey” Harris was a Dallas fire captain with two decades of experience but lived in West, and he ended up giving his life for his hometown.
“Our hearts are heavy and hurting with the loss of such a great firefighter, great husband and great family man,” said Dallas Fire Chief Louie Bright III said. Harris is survived by his wife, Holly, and three adult sons, including one who became a firefighter.
Those who knew Harris weren’t surprised that he rushed to the scene of the fire to offer his firefighting expertise.
Luckey’s nickname was something of a family joke. Family members talked about how he once nailed his thumb into a stud while working for the family construction business, and how he and his wife and sons were thrown out of a boat on Lake Waco when their motor exploded. The two-story house he built near West was demolished by a tornado, then rebuilt, then heavily damaged by fire caused by Christmas lights.
“He was legend in our family,” said his first cousin, Harriet Smith of Bryan. “Luckey stories were often told with great relish. They usually involved narrow escapes and near misses.”
But she said he was never short on courage or smarts, and he knew exactly what risks he was taking in attacking the fertilizer plant fire.
Buck Uptmor, 45, well-known as the owner of an Abbott-based fencing company and as a former professional bullrider, was another who rushed to the scene to help.
It could not be confirmed Friday whether Uptmor, a West resident, was a volunteer firefighter. But witnesses say he was toiling at the scene to move livestock out of the way when the blast occurred.
“It’s just a tragedy to lose people like Buck,” said Bill McKown, a retired Abbott schools superintendent.
Uptmor Welding and Fencing had recently fenced the city cemetery in Abbott and was about to do some work for McKown. He said Uptmor was always known for his toughness and courage.
“He was a real good rodeo rider,” McKown said. “I used to kid him that he had broken every bone in his body two or three times.”
Uptmore reportedly was married and had four children.
Also among the dead was Jimmy Matus, 52, the owner of Centex Welding in West. Matus had expanded the agricultural welding service to a company that manufactured and sold fire equipment across the U.S.
That expertise is probably why Matus showed up at the West Fertilizer fire Wednesday night, said his stepdaughter, Jennifer Kalina.
“He knew everybody in the fire department, and he was probably there showing them how to work it all,” she said. “He called my brother and said, ‘The fertilizer plant’s on fire, and I’m going to go check on it.’”
Matus was known as a dad to his brood of children and stepchildren, and Santa Claus to hundreds of kids at town events each December. Kalina said he loved to support local causes, such as a recent auction for an accident victim, at which he bought “a bunch of stupid stuff,” including two donkeys.
“He was a very caring man,” Kalina said.
Residents and officials in West this week expressed their gratitude for those who battled the blaze and helped neighbors to safety.
Among them is Bernice Pustejovsky. She had just gotten out of the shower when her son came over and said the fertilizer plant was on fire. As she went to the front door to look outside, the blast sent glass from her home on Jerry Mashek Drive into her face.
Paramedics arrived to assist her and were in such a hurry to get her to the hospital that she went without her shoes or leg brace, she said.
“I’m here, so we are thankful,” she said. “But I know what it is to be homeless. My house is gone, but at 82, I am going to rebuild. That is what we do in West. We don’t give up and we all help one another.”
Staff writer Lowell M. Brown contributed to this report.
From staff reports
* Morris Bridges, 41. Fire sprinkler technician for Action Fire Pros. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
* Perry Calvin, 37. Student at Hill College Fire Academy. Member of Mertens and Navarro Mills volunteer fire departments.
* Jerry Chapman, 26. Member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department.
* Cody Dragoo, 50. Foreman at West Fertilizer Co. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
* Kenny Harris, 52. Dallas city fire captain.
* Jimmy Matus, 52. Owner of Westex Welding in West.
* Joey Pustejovsky. West City Secretary. Member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
* Cyrus Reed. Worked at Waxahachie plant. Member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department.
* Robert Snokhous, 48. Central Texas Iron Works employee, West volunteer firefighter.
* Doug Snokhous, 50. Central Texas Iron Works employee, West volunteer firefighter.
* Buck Uptmor, 40s. Owner of fencing company. Lived near West.
Note: Officials have confirmed 14 total fatalities.