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KC medical school honors doctor for his actions after fertilizer plant exploded

Updated: 2013-09-20T04:05:37Z

By BRIAN BURNES

The Kansas City Star

Not long after the April 17 fertilizer plant fire and explosion in Texas, a nurse grabbed George Smith.

“She said: ‘You are no longer Dr. Smith, you are George Smith, patient. You are bleeding. Sit down,’ ” Smith said Thursday.

Smith discovered he had 15 cuts on his face. He had been among the first of the first responders to the West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion in which 15 people died and about 200 were injured.

Smith sat down, but he soon was back up. As director of emergency medical services in the town of West, Texas, he knew he was too valuable to remain only a patient.

So he went back to work.

“You cannot panic in a situation like that,” Smith said. “I’ve had a lot of disaster training. I just knew that I had to continue functioning, so I did.”

Smith will receive the Alumnus of the Year Award on Friday night from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences during ceremonies on the Country Club Plaza.

Smith, 65, is a member of the university’s College of Osteopathic Medicine Class of 1974. Smith’s quick response to the fire and explosion “can be credited for saving dozens of lives, particularly those in a nearby nursing home for which Dr. Smith is the medical director,” a school spokeswoman said.

The fertilizer plant caught fire about 7:30 p.m.

“When I saw how big the fire was, I started to worry about toxic chemicals,” said Smith. “We began to move the patients to the other side of the nursing home, the side furthest away from the fire.”

About 20 minutes later, the explosion occurred.

“The roof, the ceiling tiles, the air-conditioning ducts all came down on top of me,” he said. “I felt very blessed to get out alive.”

But Smith had to keep his wits about him. He and others removed 137 residents of the West Rest Haven nursing home to various locations, he said. But the explosion had leveled buildings across several blocks, and he knew he was needed elsewhere.

“I knew we needed search-and-rescue teams,” he said. “At least 70 area homes had been severely damaged, including my own.”

Smith grabbed oxygen tanks, put them in the back of his pickup truck and brought them to a nearby community center. He began working there and at a nearby command post.

He finally received more thorough medical attention about 4 a.m.

The Kansas City medicine and biosciences university’s Alumnus of the Year Award recognizes graduates who have attained “exemplary career achievements,” said spokeswoman Lisa Cambridge.

“Dr. Smith has distinguished himself by his selfless acts,” she said, “not only at the time of the plant explosion in West, Texas, but also in the months that have followed as he has helped the community rebuild itself.”

Smith said he was humbled by the recognition from the school which, when he attended it, was known as the Kansas City College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“It is an absolutely awesome medical school,” he said.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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