Smithwick man loses relative in West explosion, lends hand to community

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

WEST — After a devastating blast at a fertilizer company April 17 that officials believe killed several members of the West Volunteer Fire Department, Smithwick resident Jeff Sellers’ thoughts went to a cousin, William Uptmor, who he and others simply called “Buck”.“He had a fencing company, but he was one of those guys you called if you needed anything,” Sellers said. “If you got stuck in the mud, you called Buck, and he came and helped you get out. If you had tree branches scratching the side of your house, Buck came and trimmed them.”

So it did not surprise Sellers that Uptmor was one of the West volunteer firefighters who responded to a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. that day. After realizing they didn’t have much of a chance of containing the fire, the volunteers turned their attention to evacuating nearby residents. It was when the firefighters were helping their friends and neighbors get to safety that a massive explosion happened at the fertilizer company, killing 15 people, injuring 200 more and destroying several buildings, according to officials.

The night of the explosion, Sellers learned Uptmor was among the missing. The next morning, a niece called to say the father of three and husband was dead, despite no official statement.

“(Another relative) went back into the scene and found Buck,” Sellers said.

Jeff Sellers
Smithwick resident and Marble Falls volunteer firefighter Jeff Sellers recently went to West to help out in the aftermath of an explosion at a fertilizer company. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Sellers, who recently returned from West to help where he could and support Uptmor’s family, described the destruction as that of a cross between a tornado and a fire.

“The destruction looked like a tornado had gone through, but then you also had these places where there had been fires,” Sellers said. “It was terrible.”

Sellers, a member of the Marble Falls Area Volunteer Fire Department, headed to West to represent the unit after getting Chief Terry White’s approval. Once there, Sellers reported to the West VFD.

“One of the things about being in a fire department is you go to all this training, and, at one point or another, you run across somebody from about every department,” he said. “I told them, ‘I’m Jeff Sellers from the Marble Falls volunteer department.’ We hugged, and I told them I knew Buck.”

The West department remained a bit tight-lipped about Uptmor’s death since no official statement regarding the loss of lives had been made at the time.

Sellers responded to the command center, where officials assigned him to a relief-effort site. There, he saw West residents working alongside people from other communities, near and far.

“It was so incredible,” Sellers said. “So much supplies had come in from all over. The people there are taking care of themselves. Then you had other Texans coming in to help out where they could.”

Despite the tragedy and destruction, Sellers said he saw something in the West residents.

“I would say there was a somber feeling, but yet a sense of pride in their community, in their town,” Sellers said. “I saw an incredible resolve in the people.”

daniel@thepicayune.com