By Paula Ann Solis
More than 40 Waco first responders who aided the city of West during the April 17 explosion were honored by the Waco Police Department. West Mayor Tommy Muska and Waco Police Department Chief Brent Stroman handed out the awards, which included several Medals of Valor, during the second quarterly ceremony Thursday.
“It’s unfortunate that these things happen but I’m very proud of our people, of the way they responded and they stepped up to the plate,” Stroman said in his opening remarks to the officers and family members who came out for the occasion.
Sgt. Scott Holt presented more than 40 awards while Muska shook hands with the service men and women. Muska thanked each person individually for their services to West. The awards for West responders included 22 Medals of Valor. This medal is reserved for a heroic deed and exceptional meritorious conduct involving exemplary courage without regard for one’s own safety, Holt said.
Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton was not present for the ceremony but his letters of recommendation, which also detailed the duties performed by the responders on April 17, were read aloud by Holt for those receiving Medals of Valor.
“When we got to the central rally location, it was complete chaos,” Holt read on behalf of Swanton. “There were a lot of people running around but no one seemed to be moving with a purpose.”
Swanton’s letter went on to explain that the Waco SWAT team and officers brought order to scene as they responded quickly, clearing debris off destroyed homes in search of victims. The first responders were also commended for their leadership efforts during a time when West police officials were also being affected by the explosion.
The detailed account of the chaotic events that took place more than four months ago were like fresh memories, Muska said.
“I wanted so much to come here to shake your hands,” Muska said to the room of first responders as he recalled the night. “I can still see it just as clear as day what the chaos was that first night and we’re still in chaos but we’re managing OK.”
Waco SWAT and police officers were not the only ones honored during Thursday’s ceremony. Dispatchers, who received national recognition at the National Emergency Number Conference for their swift handling of more than 900 calls, and animal control officers were acknowledged for their part in West relief.
Wacoan Luis Leyva, a Waco animal control officer for more than five years, was among those awarded for his efforts in aiding the West animal population. Leyva said the Humane Society of Central Texas in Waco acted as West’s animal care center during their rebuilding process. Leyva said he traveled to West for weeks following the explosion in search of wounded animals in and around the explosion site.
“The hardest thing was coping with the damage,” Leyva said. “It was overwhelming. I’ve dealt with disasters before but never an explosion. But being able to reunite the animals later made it worthwhile and I would do it again today.”
The second half of the quarterly awards ceremony also included the distribution of Life Saving Awards for Waco police officers. The awards are rarely given but this quarter’s distribution of eight awards are a demonstration of the officers committed work, Stroman said.