Moore County firefighters joined with other emergency personnel, family members of the fallen, and others Friday evening in front of the Moore County Courthouse to remember and honor the 19 firefighters who died on July 29, 1956 in the Shamrock McKee Refinery fire and explosion.
Lieutenant Luis Trujillo of the Dumas Fire Department (DFD) stood in front of a group of current firefighters, none of whom had been born in 1956, next to the memorial that was erected on the courthouse square in the wake of the tragedy and spoke for his colleagues about the 19 who perished that day, “They new the risk of the job they were doing, just like any firefighter. … Even though they knew the great risk, they did not hesitate to respond. They responded valiantly, courageous, and more importantly, willingly.” He added that their willingness to put themselves in danger showed their love for their neighbors and their dedication to protecting the community. “There is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for his friends,” he said, quoting John 15:13. “On this day we want to let the families of these men know that the sacrifice will never be forgotten. The courageous acts these men displayed 66 years ago, may their memories always be honored and may God bless their families.”
Firefighter Harmon Holler of the DFD read aloud the names of each man: Ray Biles, Lewis A. Broxson, O.W. Cleveland, Gilford Corse, Billy Joe Dunn, Claude L. Emmett, Alvin W. Freeman, Sam A. Gibson, Durwood C. Lilley, Charles W. Lummus, Oliver Milligan, Paschal Pool, James L. Rivers, M. Wayne Slagle, Wayne Thomas, Donald W. Thompson, Gayle D. Weir, Ruebert S. Weir, and Joe W. West. When each name was read, Firefighter Tatum Cartrite rang a ceremonial fire bell in tribute. Bell ringing in honor of firefighters who died in the line of duty is a tradition that dates back to the origins of fire services.
“Just speaking on behalf of our family, it means a lot,” said Bruce Broxson, current mayor of Sunray and grandson of Lewis A. Broxson as the memorial service came to an end. He and the rest of his family have been attending the services since the beginning. “We are proud of the fire departments and all of our emergency personnel.” He said he has always been impressed that the firefighters continue putting on the memorial services year after year. “They do such a wonderful job. It would be easy just to forget and just not do it, but they don’t, and that says a lot.”
Broxson said that the ranks of the family members of the 19 have declined as the years have passed. Though many relatives have scattered across the country, they still share a connection because of the events of that day in July 1956.
Turnout Friday was relatively light compared to previous years, but July 29 happened to fall on a day, unusual for Moore County this summer, when rain had been falling earlier in the day and more was forecast for later in the evening.
The memorial in front of the courthouse calls July 29, 1956 the “Moore County Disaster.” The fire and subsequent explosion at the Shamrock plant, now owned by Valero, resulted in the fourth largest loss of firefighters in an industrial or structure fire in United States history. In addition to the 19 who died, 31 people were injured, most suffering severe burns, the results of which many have had to deal with their entire lives. Some of the injured were people who had driven out to the plant to see what was going on and were burned by the extreme heat created by the fireball of the explosion. From medical personnel who took care of the injured in the relatively new Memorial Hospital to friends and neighbors of the victims, few remained completely untouched. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those events had on the people of Moore County.
However tragic the disaster was, a part of the legacy of that day has been greater safety for those who fight fires and work with petroleum products today, according to Larry Copelin, who until his retirement last year was the chief of the Valero Fire Department at McKee Refinery. “We are still reaping the rewards of their sacrifice,” he said in an interview held after last year’s memorial. He added that when firefighters responded to a major fire at the refinery in 2007, they were able to control the blaze with no loss of life in large part because of knowledge gained from the events of July 29, 1956.