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What began as a plan to hold a small family gathering to honor a former Laurel man killed in an April explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant has grown into citywide tribute to emergency responders scheduled for Saturday.

“These men and women are integrated into our community and a lot of times you just don’t know who they are so it’s nice to bring them out and say thank you,” said Matt McDonnell, whose family organized the event.

The Cody F. Dragoo Memorial begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday with a procession of fire engines and emergency service and law enforcement vehicles from Billings and the surrounding areas, starting at Dahl Funeral Chapel on Division Street and continuing down Second Avenue North to the MetraPark Pavilion.

It continues with a memorial to honor fallen emergency responders and a ceremony to thank active responders at 11 a.m. It will feature speeches from Lt. Gov. John Walsh and Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, followed by a reception.

Dragoo 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 tore through the plant in April killing Dragoo and 13 others, including a handful of first responders.

His sister, Shirley McDonnell, lives in Billings and said he died rushing into the fire, knowing the danger it posed.

Mat McDonnell said the family wanted to honor his memory but has expanded the event to encourage the community to say thanks to emergency responders from every agency.

“Every single person we’ve contacted about this, they all wanted to do something,” he said. “We’re hoping for a lot of people.”

The public is invited to the event and is encouraged to line Second Avenue North during the procession.

Billings Fire Department Chief Paul Dextras said he’s been spreading the word to paid and volunteer fire departments in the area in hopes of drumming up plenty of participation.

He described emergency responders as unsung heroes and liked the idea of an event to celebrate them.

“It’s tough to find a story in the media anywhere that doesn’t involve them in some way,” he said. “It really reflects the legacy that Cody Dragoo leaves, as somebody that’s willing to give in and of themselves.

But it also brings recognition to so many thousands of others who do the same thing.”

McDonnell said the family plans to make it an annual event, held each year on the Saturday after Memorial Day. They’re working on establishing an emergency responder memorial wall at MetraPark and hope to establish a fund to help out volunteer fire departments.

“What I’ve seen other people do, that’s what really gets to you,” he said. “When it takes off on its own like this, that’s what makes it special and we want to be able to give that back.”

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