WEST, Texas (AP) — She keeps the backpack with her wherever she goes, the one Cyrus Reed asked her to look after when he raced off to fight the roaring fire at West Fertilizer Co.
When he didn't return, Rachel Pickens preserved the camouflage backpack as he left it — toothbrush and birthday cards still tucked inside. It's a reminder of the man she'd grown close to while the two of them trained together to become emergency medical technicians.
JEMS Texas Plant Explosion Coverage
She graduated Friday as an EMT without Reed — without all four of the classmates who left an EMT training class on April 17 to respond to the fire, then died in the subsequent explosion.
The graduation ceremony was delayed for months after the explosion, which killed 15 people and destroyed much of the area near the fertilizer plant — including West's Emergency Medical Services headquarters.
"I'm ready for it, but it just won't be the same," Pickens, a 39-year-old nurse, told The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/14cKW0a ).
Pickens had known Reed, a 29-year-old volunteer firefighter for nearby Abbott, for about a decade before the two reconnected over months of EMT training, she said. Pickens said they were good friends and had recently begun dating.
"It could have been something more," she said. "Who knows what the future would have held?"
On the night of the explosion, the 20 or so students in the EMT class were practicing for their final exam, which was scheduled for the following week.
Pickens said she was taking notes about the "rule of nines," a method to assess the extent of injuries in burn patients, when she heard emergency sirens. Then a dispatch alert came over Reed's cellphone: There was a fire just a few hundred yards away at the fertilizer plant.
Several students who were already volunteer firefighters headed to the plant: Reed, who loved red fire trucks; Perry Calvin, the class clown; Kevin Sanders, a new father; and Jerry Chapman, who had found his passion in firefighting and emergency response.
On his way out, Reed hastily asked Pickens to grab his backpack — he'd get it from her later. Pickens and other students then gathered blankets and went to help evacuate residents from homes near the fertilizer plant. By the time they got outside, though, a gigantic explosion erupted. Everything became a blurry chaos.
By 9 p.m., when Pickens hadn't heard from Reed, she knew in her heart that he was gone. So, too, were the three other firefighters from her class.
The next morning, she returned to what was left of the EMS building, making her way through the debris to find Reed's bag. It was resting next to hers on the only table that was still upright, she said.
Pickens keeps the camouflage backpack in the back of the Ford Escape that she bought after her car was destroyed in the blast. Reed's belongings remain inside, including birthday cards from Pickens and her 5-year-old daughter, Laynee.
"Time to light your candles," the card from Laynee reads. "I have the fire department on speed dial."
Pickens often catches a glimpse of the bag when she buckles Laynee into her car seat.
"I just feel real safe, keeping exactly what he had and carrying it with me," she said. "Like he's protecting me."
She said she wanted to earn her graduation certificate so she can work in the field and serve her community, just as Reed did.
"I'm just ready to give back, to keep going . I just want to keep moving forward," she said.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.