As federal investigators continued sifting through what remains of a Texas fertilizer plant that exploded last week for clues to the blast, several volunteer firefighters told ABC News today that even though the first responders believed the site would explode, they stayed in order to buy time to evacuate residents at a nursing home.
"All their actions - the EMT, the civilians - did delay the fire enough so that the people in the rest home could move from the front to the back of the building," said Pat Grimm, a real estate agent and volunteer firefighter. "And we were able to evacuate those people. There could have been 40 lives lost because they didn't delay the fire."
The explosion at West Fertilizer Co. on Wednesday killed at least 14, including 12 first responders, and injured 200. The blast tore through a four-to-five-block radius, leveling roughly 80 homes and a middle school and trapping 133 residents of a nursing home in rubble. Two firetrucks were also ripped apart.
Through tears, the volunteer firefighters talked about fallen comrades Joey Pustejovsky, Cody Dragoo, Morris Bridges, Kenneth "Luckey" Harris and brothers Robert and Doug Snokhous, whom they described as "heroes."
"[The Snokhouses] were first at the fire station," Grimm said. "Both of them were good husbands, good fathers. They enjoyed life."
Michael Harrington said he worked every day with Pustejovsky, 29, the town secretary and a "God-fearing man." He will be buried Wednesday.
"He's gonna be missed," Harrington said. "I think about Joey and I just picture his son's face and it makes me think about my own children…. My wife and my kids are helping me keep it together."
Grimm said Dragoo, a firefighter killed in the force of the blast, was "the absolute grill master."
Dragoo worked at the plant and organized the yearly barbecue during which the firehouse raised thousands of dollars for new equipment and trucks. Bridges fixed fire sprinklers for a living and loved his motorcycle. Harris ran a home-inspection business, played sports and had a fishing boat. And the Snokhouses were both ironworkers.
"Doug had a saying, especially to his wife, when she'd tell him to be careful when he was going on a fire call," Grimm said. "He would always respond, 'The good die young.' And if Doug was here, I'd tell him, 'Indeed the good do die young.'"
Ronnie Janek said that Harris lived in West and commuted an hour and 20 minutes to Dallas to work as a firefighter.
"Kenny was my best friend," Janek said. "His crew loved him. … He would do anything for anybody."
The remaining firefighters said they were staying busy, spending 16 to 18 hours a day trying to help the community get back on its feet.
"That's what is helping us through it - a lot of work to be done, help the community, trying to help the families get through this," Janek said. "We have grieved. We have cried. … At some point, it's probably gonna hit us harder."
The cause of the explosion is still under investigation.