SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

April 20, 2013

A stunned town begins to mourn

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, bodies were pulled from the wreckage near the West Fertilizer Co.,and 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 off 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.

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