Cumberland Times-News

April 22, 2013

A local connection

The Rev. Rebecca Vardiman and West, Texas

Matthew Bieniek
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — A longtime Dallas firefighter heard the call for help and headed out to the fire scene in West, Texas, to help the community in which he lived.

Dallas Fire Department Capt. Kenneth “Luckey” Harris Jr., 52, died while helping responders on the scene of the deadly fire and explosion.

The Rev. Rebecca Vardiman of Cumberland is his cousin, and she read the tribute offered by Dallas Fire Rescue Chief Louie Bright III to his colleague.

“Our hearts are heavy and hurting with the loss of such a great firefighter, a great husband and a great family man,” Bright said. Harris was with the department for 31 years and lived in West, about 80 miles from Dallas. Harris graduated from the Dallas Fire Academy and began a long career with the department.

“He was off that day and heard the call ... that’s what amazes me. He knew what a chemical fire like that was and the dangers,” Vardiman said.

Vardiman said she was amazed there weren’t more people killed in the explosion and fire. She said the fertilizer plant was built on what was once the edge of town, but the town grew out and around the plant.

The neighborhood of the plant was very nice, Vardiman said. It was mostly the first responders who ended up being killed by the blast.

Not many residents gave the plant much thought before the tragedy, Vardiman said.

“It was a great big thing, just there. ... It was one of those things you get used to,” she said.

As a high school student, Vardiman said, “I didn’t go around looking at fertilizer plants.”

“He loved the work and he was a person you loved to be around,” Vardiman said of Harris. “He kept the scarier things to himself.” But Harris would often entertain the family and friends with the lighter side of his job. Vardiman said she figured he didn’t want to worry his family.

Vardiman heard about the Wednesday night explosion on the radio Thursday morning. She was able to call her parents and sister and learned the sad news.

Vardiman was heading to her cousin’s funeral on Monday when she spoke to the Times-News.

Harris’ funeral will take place Wednesday in the local Catholic church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption, even though Harris was not a Catholic.

Some churches are also off limits due to damage from the blast.

The is a large community of Czechoslovakian-Americans in the town, and despite diverse ethnic backgrounds, everyone comes together in a crisis, she said.

“If you live in Texas, you know West,” Vardiman said. The folk festival in the town is a large and popular event. The town is just off Interstate 35.

“It’s a very close-knit community and I think that (a tragedy) brings people even closer,” Vardiman said.

Vardiman said she wanted to tell his story to “honor my cousin and the spirit of the town. ... It is a special place,” said Vardiman, who spent many years in West, where her parents still live.

Vardiman’s father was also a minister and the family moved around a lot, but eventually settled in West when she was 15.

Harris was married to his wife of 28 years, Holly. They had three grown boys.

Vardiman’s family is still taking it all in, and realizing how much reconstruction will be necessary to bring the town back. And of course the pain of losing loved ones will never go away.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at