The Waco Tribune-Herald on Thursday was the first news organization to publish information on the autopsy reports from the firefighters killed in West, Texas. The information from the autopsy report relayed by the paper focused on the fact that the firefighters died from blunt force trauma but included specific details about the state some of the firefighters’ bodies were found in and the findings about marijuana and alcohol for three of the firefighters. Since that report the paper has received hundreds of reader comments blasting the decision to publish the detailed information. It also sparked a Facebook page titled Boycott The Waco Tribune that has more than 2200 likes this morning. The paper pusblished the following note to readers on Thursday afternoon:
Since the tragic fertilizer plant explosion of April 17, no newspaper has more passionately sought to encourage the rebuilding of West and the healing of its residents than the Waco Tribune-Herald.
At the same time, this newspaper does not believe one can sufficiently acknowledge the sacrifices of those lost by glossing over the devastation of what happened that day — specifically, the sheer violence of a chemical explosion ultimately caused by an astounding lack of state and federal regulation.
Anyone who has read the autopsy reports knows full well our Thursday story about the deaths of the victims, while disturbing, doesn’t begin to recount the horrific detail contained in page after page of the official reports. Yet to simply attribute these deaths to “blunt-force trauma” doesn’t begin to convey the needless horror of this incident.
Some of the people with whom we’ve spoken in the past day suggest that perhaps such reporting comes too soon, when wounds in West are still fresh. We are deeply sorry this story has proven so upsetting and has aggravated the healing we sincerely wish for the people of West.
Our only intent is to report this story responsibly and accurately, with tact and honesty, so that the sacrifices of those killed on April 17 can prevent a similar tragedy somewhere else.
They’re men who came to action when the town of West needed them most.
West’s Mayor Tommy Muska says the firefighters who sacrificed everything didn’t hesitate to answer the call for help before the explosion that rocked the town of West in mid-April.
However, on Thursday, News 8 obtained autopsy reports that the mayor said indicate three of the responding firefighters shouldn’t have answered the call.
“No, they shouldn’t have gone to the fire,” Muska said.
The report shows heroic brothers Douglas and Robert Snokhous, of West, had blood-alcohol levels well above the legal limit. Douglas had a blood alcohol level of .12 and Robert .158.
“That’s a city policy that you don’t get in a fire truck if you were drinking and you don’t go to the fire,” Muska said.
Abbott firefighter Jerry Chapman had cannabis in his system, according to the autopsy report. It showed THC levels of 45 ng/mL.
Nothing could have stopped fire captains Bob and Doug Snokhous from responding to the raging fire at West’s fertilizer plant. Danger didn’t deter them. Neither did the department’s alcohol policy prohibiting firefighters from duty while intoxicated.
The brothers were among the 15 people killed when ammonium nitrate at the plant exploded in West on April 17. The amount of alcohol in the brothers’ systems at the time was higher than the legal limit to drive, autopsy reports show. Abbott volunteer firefighter Jerry Chapman, who also responded and died, had traces of marijuana in his system.
But experts and people familiar with the situation said none of that probably affected the outcome of the deadly and devastating explosion. Instead, they say, it shows the three refused to stand idly by during the farming community’s greatest disaster.
“They went there to protect the town,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said. “In my opinion, they are still heroes. In my opinion, they used their best judgment.”
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