Firefighter who died in Texas explosion grew up in Palos Hills, loved Superman

2X obit-Sanders 2col


Kevin Sanders, seen here with his wife, Sarah, was one of 11 firefighters who died after a fertilizer plant exploded last month in West, Texas. Sanders grew up in Palos Hills and graduated from Marist High School in 1997.




          A former Palos Hills resident who moved to Texas and worked as a veterinarian technician, teacher and firefighter was one of 15 people who died after a fertilizer plant caught fire and subsequently exploded last month in the Lone Star State.

            Kevin Sanders, 33, was a volunteer firefighter taking an emergency medical services class with the Bruceville-Eddy Volunteer Fire Department when he was called upon to help evacuate residents who lived in homes near the burning plant in West, Texas on April 17. Sanders was among 11 firefighters who died after the plant exploded. He is survived by his wife, Sarah, and his 3-month-old son, Reeve.

            Sanders grew up in Palos Hills and graduated from Marist High School in 1997. He is being remembered as friendly, always willing to lend a helping hand, and a huge fan of Superman. His son was named after Christopher Reeve, who portrayed the Man of Steele in several “Superman” movies. Sanders was a member of Marist’s band and the drama club. Brother Patrick McNamara collected memories of Kevin, some of which were shared at a Mass on April 23.

            “Kevin never seemed to have a bad day,” one of his former teachers said in a release issued by McNamara. “I also remember him as a caring young man who loved to laugh. He wasn’t shy. He was outgoing and personable. I will miss him.

“Kevin was one of those students you loved, never worried about, and hoped would go on to make a difference in the world. Kevin’s selfless act in West, Texas, proves he had done just that.”

            Sanders worked with the Plainfield Fire Protection District before moving to Texas about two and a half years ago after Sarah was hired as a physician’s assistant. He once worked at VCA Worth Animal Hospital in Palos Hills, where he developed his love of animals, VCA manager Cheryl McKnight said.

            “He loved animals, that was his passion,” McKnight said. “He loved helping them. He was very good at what he did. I adored Kevin.”

            McKnight remembered Sanders coming to work at the animal hospital in his “Superman” car.

            “He was crazy about Superman,” McKnight said. “He had an older car and painted it Superman blue, and the hood had the Superman ‘S’ on it. It was the coolest car. He had a Superman tattoo, and people called him Kevin ‘Superman’ Sanders.”

            Mr. Sanders named his son Reeve in honor of Superman actor Christopher Reeve.

            A petition on is asking that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel “light up the sky” in Sander’s memory on June 14, when the new “Superman” movie is released. The petition has nearly 800 signatures.

            “On April 17, Kevin Sanders ran into the flames in West, Texas, with his fellow firefighters and EMS workers,” the petition reads. “They were going to put out a blaze but lost their lives. Kevin was an important and much loved person to whom many of us are indebted. On June 14, when the new Superman film comes out, we are asking the City of Chicago to light up the sky for her native son, who gave his life to protect others.”


After graduating from Marist, Kevin attended Fox College in Tinley Park and later taught veterinary classes there, McKnight said. He held a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of Illinois and a veterinary technician certificate from Parkland College in Champaign.

            “He was one of the most-liked teachers there,” McKnight said. “They always said Mr. Sanders was the best.”

            Mary Esterhammer-Fic was one of Sanders’ students at Fox College.

            “He was just so enthusiastic and funny and well prepared,” Esterhammer-Fic said. “It was really a vocation for him. He was the kind of person who would stay really late helping people learn a skill that was difficult for them to grasp. Everyone had a story, about how he helped them with school or helped them get into a locked car.

“He was a phenomenal guy. I am distraught over what happened, but not surprised that he ran in and tried to help.”

            Esterhammer-Fic remembered Sanders as a friend who once took her son paintballing.

            “I knew Kevin was doing paintball with his friends in Wilmington, and I just said ‘Hey, my son really wants to do that,’” she recalled. “Kevin said he could come and hang out when he and his friends went over the weekend. Who wants a 13-year-old with them all weekend? My son still remembers that. Kevin really welcomed him and it meant a lot to me.”

            After moving to Texas, Sanders taught veterinary technician classes at McLennan Community College in Waco and worked as a volunteer firefighter.

The mother of one of Sanders’ friends remembered Kevin’s sense of humor. Lynnmarie Kill-Finn’s children and Sanders attended Marist together. Kill-Finn, who now lives in Colorado Springs, wrote about Sanders on his memorial page.

            “He was a big tease but always respectful of my place as a mother of his friends,” Kill-Finn wrote. “I was in the kitchen making something on the stove, and he crept in behind me wearing a mask and costume from the ‘Scream’ movie. Needless to say, I screamed so loud when I turned around and saw him. I don’t know who was more frightened.”

            Sanders was a member of Sacred Heart Church in Palos Hills, and fellow parishioner remembered him as a friendly person.

            “He was the first teen member of Parish Council,” Palos Park resident Nancy Webster wrote. “He was always there to give a hand and help in any way.”

            Palos Hills resident Linda Muscolino said Sanders’ brother, Scott, gave a very moving memorial tribute at the university service. Mr. Sanders’ brother, sister, wife, son and mother attended the service. Muscolino is Scott Sanders’ mother-in-law.

            “He had a special love for Sarah, and they were a beautiful couple,” Muscalino said. “At family functions, it was always Uncle Kevin joking and playing with the kids and spending time with them. Thirty-three years old is way too young to leave us, but he left us with a lot of wonderful memories.

            The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has established a national fund to accept monetary donations to assist the survivors and co-workers of the firefighters and EMS technicians who died in the explosion. Checks can be mailed to NFFF c/o West, Texas, Fire and EMS Fallen Hero Fund, P.O. Drawer 498, Emmitsburg, MD 21727. Donations can also be made by credit card online at