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Volunteer firefighting force decimated in Texas fertilizer plant explosion

At least 11 firefighters – most of them volunteers – appear to have died in a huge explosion and fire at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, reports signal. Much of the nation relies on volunteer firefighters.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / April 19, 2013

Firefighters conduct a search and rescue operation at an apartment building destroyed by a huge explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on Thursday. The blast killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, including three firefighters, officials said overnight.

LM Otero/AP

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Early reports that at least 11 firefighters, mainly volunteers, are unaccounted for and believed killed in the massive fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Wednesday night are refocusing attention on the role of volunteer fire departments in the US, especially in rural areas.

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So far, 12 people are confirmed dead and more than 200 injured, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Many of those killed and found in the vicinity of the explosion are believed to be first responders, according to the Dallas Morning News.

For a small town, such a loss can be devastating. "Basically, the West VFD is without two-thirds of their members at this point," reported the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas on its website on Friday. Of the 29 firefighters on the town's roster, five have died and 11 others are hospitalized with injuries, it reported.

Very small towns depend on all-volunteer departments and, it turns out, so does the country as a whole. Forty percent of the US population is now protected by volunteer firefighters – saving taxpayers an estimated $130 billion annually.

The national trend is that such departments are declining in size as the average age of volunteer firefighters is increasing. Because they are drawn from the pool of regular folks who populate the area – accountants, teachers, insurance agents, store clerks – odds are high that victims will be well-known by others on a first-name basis.

The town “needs your prayers,” West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters Thursday.

Country music icon Willy Nelson announced that he will donate the proceeds from his April 28 concert in Austin to support the West Volunteer Fire Department.

“West is just a few miles from my hometown of Abbott," he said on his web page. "I was born and raised here and it was my backyard growing up. This is my community. These friends and neighbors have always been and are still a part of my life. My heart is praying for the community that we call home.”

Now a rural town of just under 3,000, West grew up around a fresh-water spring with the help of Czech immigrants. A crossroads of grocery stores, churches, schools, and doctors offices, the town just 20 miles north of Waco has been decimated by the fertilizer plant explosion that has leveled dozens of homes and businesses.

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