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West Mourns Loss Of Volunteer Firefighters In Fertilizer Plant Blast

BJ Austin

Officials in West, Texas confirm that Wednesday's fertilizer plant explosion killed at least 14 people, injured 200 and damaged about 50 homes.  The owner of West Fertilizer, Donald Adair issued a statement saying, "My heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community." 

 Many of those killed were volunteer first responders.  One of them was a Dallas Fire  Department Captain.

In West, 52 year old Kenny Harris was known as Lucky.  30 years a Dallas firefighter, he was off duty and home Wednesday night when the call went out. There was a fire at the fertilizer plant. Harris was not technically a West volunteer, but he went to help. At a crowded candlelight vigil in West, Tim Sullins, the Ag teacher at the High School, says his friend Lucky loved life in this small town.  

“My children grew up with his children, " Sullins said, his eyes brimming with tears. "He coached all the kids from the time they were little growing up. He was a heck of a Dad, a heck of a person in the community. We’re all fortunate to have known Lucky.”

Sullins says he’s not surprised Harris raced toward the danger to try to protect others.

Jeannette Jernigan went to church with Harris and his wife Holly.

“You can’t get any better. He raised a good family, three boys – salt of the earth," she said. "I can’t fathom what it’s going to be like without him.”

She’s close with Holly, who is the secretary of the intermediate school destroyed in the blast.

“My heart and prayers go with Holly and the boys. We’re all in a state of shock,” said Jernigan.

It’s not just immediate family and close friends reeling from the plant explosion. Most everyone knows someone who is, or has been a West volunteer firefighter.

Jered Rochester leaned on the bed of his pickup parked on the street. His Dad, a postman, was a volunteer for more than eight years. He says sometimes Dad would have to leave the dinner table in real hurry.  

“You have to be willing to put down what you’re doing and drop your life and go do it,” Rochester said.

He says his Dad never talked much about the close calls and dangers.  Rochester says today he’s thinking about his friends who dropped everything and raced to the fertilizer plant Wednesday night.

“I’ve been fighting tears back since yesterday. And every time I hear about a confirmed death, it just tears me up,” Rochester said. 

Mike Mellgren says it was always the same 12 to 16 guys answering the call. He says he went to school with half a dozen of them. He sighs, and says they knew the risk of being a volunteer first responder and were willing to take it.

“That’s who they are. That’s why they took the job," Mellgren said, his voice tinged with a kind of reverence. "That’s the kind of people they were and are. They’re there for you. And that’s what our town is. Everybody’s here for each other. They’re the epitome of our town."

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.