Texas Panhandle Firefighter in Critical Condition

In his hospital bed with a brace protecting three broken neck bones, volunteer firefighter Jeff Cook remembers fellow firefighter James McMorries' promise as they left to battle a raging Panhandle wildfire.

"I'm not going to take you where I know you're going to get hurt."

They were just off Interstate 40 in a field near Alanreed on March 12, a day when hundreds of blazes broke out in the parched region, ultimately burning some 960,000 acres and killing 11 people.

McMorries was driving in an area where graders had moved brush to prevent the fire from spreading, breaking up the hard, cracked dirt and leaving behind soft sand. Then firefighter Joseph Garcia, standing on the front of the truck with a hose, saw flames approaching from another direction and motioned to McMorries, who quickly backed up.

But the top-heavy truck loaded with water turned over and rolled down a 60-foot-deep ravine. All three men were thrown off and nearby fire crews rushed to pull them to safety.

"He kept his word," Cook told The Associated Press. "It wasn't his fault that the dirt gave way."

McMorries, 62, remained on life support and was in critical condition Sunday at Northwest Texas Hospital in Amarillo. McMorries has a broken back, aspirated lungs and broken ribs and has suffered two strokes, relatives said.

Cook, 45, who also punctured his lung and broke several ribs, is expected to fully recover but will need surgery, he said.

Garcia, 25, who has been released from the hospital, burned his hand, broke his leg in two places and needs surgery. He and his wife are expecting a baby this summer, friends said.

The men are with the volunteer fire department in Howardwick, a lakeside community of some 400 residents about 50 miles southeast of Amarillo.

Although the city's insurance is expected to cover their medical bills, the men will miss weeks or months of work. Donations are being collected at local banks.

The town had only six volunteer firefighters and aging, faulty equipment until Jan. 1, when a wildfire scorched 22,000 acres in Donley County, threatening Howardwick.

Folks were so shaken that 25 more people signed up to be firefighters — including McMorries, who owns an appraisal company in Amarillo. He also is a longtime rancher and years ago worked for another city's fire and rescue team, said his stepdaughter, Megan Bowes.

McMorries donated tires and radios for the fire trucks, encouraged others to donate and did mechanical work on the engines, but he never wanted recognition, his friends and relatives said.

"That's all he wants to do, to be part of something to help people," Bowes said. "Yeah, we worried but you just don't think it's going to happen to you. And you can't tell him he can't do something. He's just a stubborn cowboy."

Many residents have made the hour-long drive to and from the hospital daily all week. When Cook was able to get out of bed, the first thing he wanted to do was visit Garcia and McMorries.

Cook, who works at an oil refinery in nearby Borger, said he plans to go back to volunteer firefighting as soon as he recovers.

"You get to the point where you work with people, and everybody's going to take care of each other. They're going to risk their lives for you, just like you're going to risk your life," Cook said. "It was just a freak accident. If everybody quit, you'd be in real problems then."