A large crowd of Moore County residents and visitors turned out Monday evening to the Moore County Courthouse square to join with firefighters of the Dumas Fire Department, Sunray Fire Department, and Valero Fire Department to remember and honor the 19 firefighters from these three departments who were killed 63 years ago on July 29, 1956 fighting the Shamrock Mckee Refinery fire and explosion. Valero Fire Department Chief Larry Copelin led the service. Standing next to the memorial that county residents erected in the wake of the tragedy, he told the crowd, "We remember those men and, moreover, we should remember their families and friends. Those men responded to an event that no one could have guessed would affect so many people. They left their families not knowing they would not return. These men were fathers, husbands, workers, supervisors, coaches, scout leaders, and firemen. (They) did all these things to the best of their ability … I have no doubt they were the best firefighters to the very end … (they) left behind families, friends, and a grateful community."
Sunray Fire Department Chief Sam Stone said, "We are here because we will not forget the ultimate sacrifice these 19 firemen and their families made on Sunday, July 29, 1956." He talked about one day running across the cards and letters that people and fire departments from around the world had sent to the Sunray Fire Department in the days and weeks after the fire. From the Los Angeles Fire Department, "The sympathy of each and every man is hereby extended to the families of each (fallen firefighter)."
Among the highlights of the ceremony, Dumas Fire Department Chief Ronald Pray read out the names of the fallen. Afterwards, a firefighter rang a bell for the men to signify their sacrifice, a centuries-old tradition among firefighters.
State Rep. Four Price came to Dumas for the service. "I think this service is important not only for the community and the folks who were here at the time in 1956, but also in remembrance of those individuals who gave their lives, and they are real heros. And so it is important for our community to not just remember them, but to honor them. That is one of the things I love about our community, that events like this are valued, prioritized, and appreciated, and I think it was a very nice service."
Some of those attending the event had a direct connection with the events of July 29, 1956. "We lost many friends," said Anita Dye. She was with her husband, Bobbie, who was a volunteer with the Dumas Fire Department in 1956 but was out of town when the fire occurred. "Had he been in Dumas, he would have been involved," she said. "It was a good remembrance," she said of the ceremony.
"I think they always do a very good job," said Sheila Milligan, whose husband, Doug, lost his father, Oliver Milligan, on that day in 1956.
"I was 10 years old when my dad got killed," said Doug. Oliver Milligan, a Dumas firefighter, was 32 years old when he died. "I thought he was old back then," said his son. The Milligans have only missed a couple of the annual ceremonies in the more than 60 years since the disaster. "I appreciate the good turnout that we had today," Doug added.
"Heritage, sacrifice," replied Chief Copelin when asked what the ceremony meant to him. "The families of those men sacrificed probably more than anyone in the community. They lost their spouses, their fathers, and stuff. And that sacrifice in the fire service, we should honor those families as much as we do, but I think it is about sacrifice and honor."
The firefighters who died in the line of duty on July 29, 1956 fighting the McKee Refinery fire were: Virgil Wayne Thomas, 39; Gayle D. Weir, 27; James L. Rivers, 28; Alvin Freeman, 35; O. W. Cleveland, 38; Charley Lummus, 46; Joe West, 45; Rupert S. Wier, 37; D. C. Lilly, 39; Ray Biles, 40; Lewis A. Broxson, 38; Claude Emmitt, 46; Gilford Corse, 40; Donald Thompson, 27; Sam Gibson, 37; Paschel Pool, 31; Oliver Milligan, 32; M. W. Slagle, 33; and Billy Joe Dunn, 25.