The man at the center of a tribute Saturday to emergency responders was killed April 17 in a fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, but his presence — and those of his fellow responders — was felt in an hourlong memorial service that was punctuated with a poignant video.
At least 200 people turned out for the Cody F. Dragoo Memorial, with a procession of fire engines and emergency service and law enforcement vehicles from Eastern Montana wending their way along Fourth Avenue to the MetraPark Pavilion.
Emergency responders included those from the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, Billings, Molt, Red Lodge, Columbus, Lockwood, Central Valley, Dean Creek, Worden, Blue Creek, Custer and Melstone. American Medical Response workers also attended.
Each entered the parking lot beneath a U.S. flag-draped arch created by a pair of fire engines.
Carla Anguiano, a former volunteer firefighter and EMT in Worden, watched the procession with her five grandchildren and saluted the responders with flags as they paraded into the parking lot.
“It’s just so near and dear to my heart,” Anguiano said. “Volunteer fire departments are in desperate need of help because everyone is too busy. Our rural communities are without emergency responders.”
Dragoo, 50, grew up in Laurel and was a member of the volunteer fire department at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, where he worked. An explosion ripped through the plant in April, killing Dragoo and 13 others, including 11 emergency responders. He died rushing into the fire, according to his sister, Shirley McDonnell.
The family wanted to honor his memory. Along the way, they decided to invite the community to participate and say thanks to emergency responders from every agency.
“Cody left this world … a hero,” said Billings Mayor Tom Hanel. “That’s what being a first responder is all about.”
A tragedy like the explosion in Texas often causes us to refocus our priorities, to reflect on how fragile life is and how much we value first responders, Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund said at the service.
“In the last several years we have had floods, oil spills, fires, tornadoes and vehicle crashes,” Ostlund said. “In each case, first responders played a key role, and in many cases the first responders were volunteers.”
Yellowstone County, like many other counties, could not provide fire protection for rural wild lands or provide EMT services without volunteer departments, he said.
Lt. Gov. John Walsh said those who have the privilege to lead should strive to better support first responders, whether it’s making sure fire and police departments and first responders have the resources they need to do their jobs — or supporting reforms required to protect them from senseless epidemics of violence that haunt local neighborhoods.
“As difficult as days like today may be, as tough as the losses may be, your mission does not stop,” Walsh told those gathered. “You can never let down your guard. And those of us who you protect should never let slide our gratitude either. We should not pause and remember to thank our first responders in the wake of tragedy. We should do it every day.”
Dragoo’s sister, Shirley McDonnell of Billings, clutched to her bosom the U.S. flag that was draped across the coffin that memorialized her brother. She wiped a tear from her cheek and smiled.
“The service was amazing,” she said. “There were so many first responders here. I’m just so proud.”
Dragoo’s family plans to make the memorial service an annual event, held each year on the Saturday after Memorial Day. They are also working toward establishing an emergency responder memorial wall at MetraPark and want to establish a fund to help volunteer fire departments.