TODAY   |  April 19, 2013

Blast was not first tragedy for Texas town officials

Justice of the Peace David Pereya and Dr. George Smith are longtime West, Texas, public officials who have dealt with tragedies before, but never as close to home as the one they face now in their devastated community.

Share This:

This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> matt lauer covering another big story this morning. that devastation in the town of west, texas, after a fertilizer plant exploded. matt, good morning again to you.

>> savannah, good morning again to you. if there are any developments there in new york and boston, of course we'll jump back to you as soon as we hear about that. the blast zone here in west, texas, much of this town has been decimated. so much so that people are struggling to get their minds around what has happened. gabe caught up with two residents and got their thoughts. nice to see you.

>> good to see you. we talk to people all over this town. some are shaken but others say it will take a while for this to sink in. now a story of two public official who is faced tragedy before but never this close to ho home. as investigators keep searching for tragedies, the justice of the peace will be the one identifying them.

>> it hasn't really sunk in quite yet.

>> reporter: 20 years ago today he was among the justices who identified the bodies following the 51-day branch davidian standoff. the biggest difference this time is he knows the people who died personally.

>> i know them.

>> reporter: on top of that, his business, home and car were badly damaged much like dr. george smith , the ems director.

>> reporter: when the fertilizer facility first caught fire, he feared the fumes so he went to the nearby nursing home and started evacuating people to the other side of the building. he credits that head start with saving lives. after the blast, he was stuck in the rubble. his face bloody as he appeared on thursday's "today" show. hours later, back to work.

>> the original triage people tried to send me to the hospital. i said no. i have a job to do.

>> reporter: for these two longtime public officials, the death toll is more than a number.

>> we're a very strong community. we're very close knit.

>> reporter: it's full of familiar names.

>> sad, sad, sad news. even if it's one. we will persevere and proceed on with our duty.

>> reporter: a lot to take in. local officials have been reluctant to give an exact number of how many people have died but when i asked that justice of the peace how many of the bodies he recognized, he said at this point, matt, all of them.

>> gabe gutierrez here with me. thank you for your reporting