President pledges support for victims of West disaster

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by TERESA WOODARD & MATT GOODMAN

WFAA

Posted on April 25, 2013 at 2:36 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 5 at 11:58 AM

WACO –– President Barack Obama told grieving firefighters and their loved ones who gathered in Waco Thursday that the nation will help West, Texas rebuild and reclaim their community.

"You are not alone," the president said. "We stand with you, and we do not forget."

Thousands of firefighters from as far away as Calgary, Canada traveled to Central Texas to attend a memorial for victims of last week's deadly explosion.

"What makes West special isn't going to go away," President Obama said. "And instead of changing who you are, this tragedy simply revealed who you've always been."

Twelve first responders were killed on April 17 when the West Fertilizer Co. plant exploded. The blast, which was strong enough to register as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep in its wake.

In all, 15 people were killed and an estimated 142 homes were destroyed. On Wednesday, a trade group estimated the cost of the losses to be $100 million.

A procession with thousands of firefighters and hundreds of engines and ambulances departed from West and arrived in Waco at about noon.

"It's a brotherhood," said Capt. Dan Frederick of the Calgary Fire Department. 

First responders from almost 250 different departments exited their vehicles and marched into the Ferrell Center at Baylor University for the service.

Many relatives and survivors were among the mourners.

"As loved ones, you understood and supported their dedication to serve and support this community," U.S. Fire Administrator Ernest Mitchell Jr. said. "As a nation, we are sincerely and eternally grateful."

"These are volunteers ... ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage and a determination to do what they could to save lives and property," Gov. Rick Perry said during his tribute to the fallen firefighters. "Let their deeds serve as an inspiration for all of us to live lives of meaning, commit to serving our neighbors and communities."

The official statements were punctuated by moving video testimonies from family members and friends, speaking about their heartbreaking losses.

Carmen Bridges, the wife of West Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Morris Bridges, 41, clutched their young son as she recounted her final moments with him.

"He got the call for the fire. Usually he just ran out of the house without stopping as fast as he could, but he stopped that day and turned around and picked Jaimeson up and said, 'Daddy loves you, and I'll be right back.'  And he didn't come back."

William "Buck" Uptmor Jr., 45, was remembered as a noted outdoorsman who built a fencing company from the ground up. He loved his family dearly. 

"I know he would be amazed at the outpouring of kind words and love in his honor," said the speaker. "We're going to miss you, brother." 

Cyrus Reed, 29, an Abbott volunteer firefighter, "lived with a seal for life that could not be contained." He loved fire, "as evidenced by all the burns in our yards," joked his brother, Bryce Reed.

"Cyrus never spoke of a code of ethics, valor, honor, tenacity and prudence," he said. "Never once did he say those words. However, I watched him live them without compromise." 

Nearly all of the first responders who gave their lives were said to be men who dedicated themselves to their community. Who, as in the case of fallen Bruceville-Eddy firefighter Kevin Sanders, couldn't have been kept in his seat in EMS class with "duct tape and super glue" when the second call came.

"Firefighters need help," his brother said. 

The brothers Doug and Robert Snokhous came from a family of public servants. Doug, 50, a West resident all his life, had "service before self ... instilled in him at a young age," his daughter said in his eulogy video. Robert, 48, a man who loved hunting and the Knights of Columbus West Council No. 2305, treated his stepchild as if she was his own, she said. 

"I'm thankful others now know, and see, the true hero he was," his stepdaughter said in his video.

Volunteer firefighter Cody Dragoo, 50, "was the type of guy who would do anything for anyone at any time no questions asked," said his brother in law. 

They were men who loved excitement, such as Jerry Chapman, 26, who was born in a Pampa snowstorm. His parents recalled how soccer didn't move fast enough to keep him occupied. Neither did jobs at Pizza Hut or the Black Eyed Pea. It wasn't until he became a firefighter that he found his true calling.

"He was always excited when he got called out and no matter what time, day or night, facing injury or death, he grew to love it." 

And many, like Joey Pustejousky, 29, didn't stop at volunteering with his firefighter duties. He was the city secretary in West and was also secretary of the volunteer fire department that he deeply adored. His smile, with that defining dimple, will always be remembered, his family said. 

"You were so brave," his sister said. "You were truly a brother to me." 

Kenneth "Lucky" Harris, 52, was a captain in Dallas Fire-Rescue who answered the call 77 miles away in West anyhow. Still, even with his dedication to service, his son said he never missed a family sporting event.

"He was an awesome dad, the best dad I could ever hope for, an awesome human as well," he said. "I'm just glad he was my dad and I was able to be around him." 

They were kind and honest, like Perry Calvin, 37, whose best friend Ronald said he welcomed him with open arms when he moved to Texas in 2004. 

"I met the one and only Perry Calvin and after about two minutes of conversation, Perry was already talking to me like he knew me his whole life," Ronald said in his statement. "I don't know if he ever met a stranger and, if he did, he didn't know 'em for long and I can tell you that." 

And they had deep roots in their community. Jimmy Matus, 52, was a fire-truck builder and operator who worked at the Westex Welding & Fire Apparatus company for the past 40 years. 

"Jimmy was an outstanding man, someone who would go out of his way to help you. That's the way we are taught," said Garratt Matus of his father's cousin.

Many of the other speakers spoke of living the lives the fallen would want them to. Use their sacrifices as an example –– the Bible verse John 15:13 was repeated during the memorial, "For there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for his friends." 

"It's our time to remember that we must continue to live our lives," said Bill Gardner, first vice president of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas. "We must continue on."

"While the light coming from the darkness is not as bright as we want it to be, it exists," he added. "They will never be forgotten."

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to Waco by helicopter for the service after attending the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University, the 43rd president's honorary library and museum.

Their helicopter circled over the explosion site in West three times before landing in Waco. Both Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn expressed their gratitude to the Obamas for their presence. 

"We will never forget what happened here, nor forget the sacrifices of those who first responded," Perry said. "God bless you and, through you, may God continue to bless the great state of Texas." 

Former President George W. Bush sent regrets that he was unable to attend the memorial. Baylor University President Ken Starr read a statement on the Bush's behalf.

"Today we dedicated the new George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas we are sad we cannot be with you for this memorial service. We send our heartfelt sympathies to the residents of West. All who are suffering are in our thoughts and prayers. Stay strong and God bless you." 

Kenny "Lucky" Harris, the Dallas Fire Rescue captain who was volunteering to help battle the blaze in West, was buried on Wednesday

WFAA.com contributed to this report.

Email twoodard@wfaa.com

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