Courtesy the Harris family
Capt. Kenny Luckey Harris, right, poses with his son, Jud Harris, who also became a firefighter.
By Gabe Gutierrez, Nery Ynclan, and Christina Caron, NBC News
WEST, TEXAS – In the small, close-knit town of West, if you slow down and pull over, the driver behind you will ask if you need help or directions.
So it’s no surprise that when off-duty Dallas firefighter Capt. Kenny Luckey Harris found out smoke was rising from the West Fertilizer Co., he rushed over to help his hometown.
"He was worried the volunteer guys wouldn't be safe on a chemical fire," said Ronnie Janek, a fellow Dallas firefighter, and close friend of Harris. "He said he had to help them stay safe."
But Harris, 52, had only been at the West Fertilizer Co., for about five minutes when the plant exploded Wednesday, generating a blast so strong people felt their homes rock 90 miles away.
Several blocks away, Harris’ wife, Holly Harris, felt the impact. “It was almost like more a pressure from the bottom up and the windows and the glass just blew, and then all the ceiling fell in on us and stuff was everywhere and you just start running,” she said. “That's the only thing you know to do.”
She started calling her husband’s phone. It kept ringing.
“He's busy,” she thought. “He's helping people.”
But as time went by, she said, “I knew that he would call me if he could.”
The next day, she found out he had died. One firefighter friend stayed with his body all night until it was cleared to be removed from the horrific scene.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News, the family and friends closest to Harris shared their grief, and the legacy of Kenny Harris, who went by his middle name, Luckey.
“He was my best friend,” said Holly, 49, her voice strained as she held back tears. “We did everything together…We were at the time of our life now where our boys are grown and they're on their own. And we had so many plans and things we wanted to do. … We won't be able to do that now.”
Of the 14 people who died in the West, Texas, explosion, five were firefighters and four were medics. Investigators have determined where the explosion occurred, but have not yet released any information about what triggered it.
Dallas firefighter Capt. Kenny Luckey Harris, who lived in West, Texas, died in the fertilizer explosion that killed 13 others. His wife and their three sons share their story, and Harris' legacy in an exclusive interview with NBC News.
Harris' son Jud also a firefighter
Kenny Luckey Harris had fought fires for 31 years, and there was never a day when he didn’t want to go to work, Holly said.
“He loved it. He loved the excitement, but he was very careful,” she recalled. “He took all the precautions to be safe and keep people safe.”
His enthusiasm for the job was infectious, and inspired the oldest of his three sons, Jud Harris, 25, to become a Dallas firefighter too.
“He taught me a lot about the fire department,” said Jud, who has been on the job for about four years. “He taught me a lot of stuff about working hard, you know, doing stuff for other people.”
Now, Jud said, he’s going to try to live up to his father’s standard.
“There's not a station that I walk into that when I meet 'em, they're not like, ‘Hey! Jud Harris, you Captain Harris' boy?’…. And they go on, and tell stories about what a great captain he is,” Jud said. “He's just very well liked and loved up there.”
‘The best, toughest man I know’
Luckey’s son, Jarrod Harris, 22, who found out about the blast while he was in New Mexico, jumped in his car and started driving to Texas, “praying the whole way home. … Honestly I thought that man was too strong to die, really. Because he's the best, toughest man I know.”
When he found out his father didn’t make it out alive, he said, his heart sank.
“It crushed me then, but now it just I dunno … it doesn’t seem real at all,” Jarrod said.
On Saturday, outside the Harris’ immaculate West ranch that Luckey built himself, fellow firefighters who had driven two hours from Dallas helped mow the lawn Saturday, one small way they aimed to help Holly Harris and her three sons.
Some of the firefighters were arguing over who was Kenny Luckey Harris’ best friend.
He was best friends with all of us, said Janek.
‘He’d do it again’
Kenny Luckey Harris was off-duty at the time of the fertilizer plant fire, but he went there hoping to save a life, his family said.
“He just wants to help,” said Jarrod. “He'd do it again.”
He was an inspiration to everyone around him, said family friend Mary Ellison.
“Luckey made our husbands better husbands, fathers, friends and men in general,” she said.
Fun-loving and adventurous, his family said Luckey was always keeping busy – one of his favorite activities was going on fishing trips with his sons.
“We had a fishing trip planned next weekend on his boat and I was excited, and I just couldn't wait til next weekend,” said the youngest son, Heath Harris, 20. “If I got a weekend off that's the first thing I thought to do was tell dad to get the fishing trip planned. … Being on his boat, being out on the ocean -- he just loved it.”
Everything he knew about boating was self-taught, Holly said.
“Even if he didn't know how to do it, he would find out how to do it. He would learn it, and just teach himself how to do what it was,” she said. “He was always the life of the party wherever we went. And he never met a stranger, he could talk to anybody.”
Kenny Luckey Harris’ visitation and funeral will be held at St. Mary’s Assumption Church. The visitation is on Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and the funeral is on Wednesday at 2 p.m.
A memorial service for all who died in the blast is scheduled for Thursday, April 25 at 2 p.m. at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Following an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, police on Friday allowed some residents to return to the blast area. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.