WACO, Texas — President Obama pledged continuing help for the people of West, Texas, “even after the cameras leave,” during an emotional memorial service Thursday that celebrated the lives of the 12 men who rushed to the burning West Fertilizer plant in the minutes before it exploded last week.
“You are not alone, you are not forgotten,” Obama said. “We may not all live here in Texas, but we’re neighbors, too. We’re Americans, too, and we stand with you, and we do not forget.”
The 12 men included volunteer firefighters from West and neighboring towns, students finishing an EMT training class in West and two neighbors who went to help after learning of the blaze.
“They ran toward danger looking for a way they might help,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, during the service at Baylor University, about 20 miles from West. “Today we honor the lives of 12 great men who gave their lives in an enduring act of love.”
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The memorial service drew about 10,000 people, including thousands of firefighters from across the state, hundreds of residents from West and families of the fallen. The coffins of the 12 — ages 26 to 52 — stood before the stage, draped in American and Texas flags.
Their photos stood on easels, and an honor guard of firefighters, police officers and paramedics stood close by. Throughout the service, video tributes by the families of the fallen firefighters played, prompting Obama to tell the crowd, “I cannot match the power of the voices” in the videos.
In addition to the 12 responders honored Thursday, the blast killed two residents of a nearby apartment complex that was demolished by the explosion, which also injured more than 200 people and destroyed 142 homes.
Carmen Bridges, holding her infant son Jaemeson, said her husband, Morris, a pipe fitter and father of three who had volunteered at the West Fire Department for three years, usually ran out of the house as fast as he could when a fire call came.
But on April 17, she said he had stopped and picked up Jaemeson. “He said, ‘Daddy loves you and I’ll be right back.’ He didn’t come back,” she said through tears. “He loved his community and the people in the community, and he would have done anything to help them.”
Relatives talked of fathers, husbands, former Boy Scouts and altar boys who touched their lives in profound ways.
Bryce Reed said his brother, Capt. Cyrus Reed of the Abbott Fire Department, was on “fire for life. He died doing what he loved.”
Reed brought the audience to laughter when he recounted his brother’s antics, which included blowing up a processed-cheese can in the backyard.
Kim Hutto, a volunteer firefighter from Haskell, said the videos, which were projected on the basketball arena’s scoreboard, made her cry. “There was a volunteer from a town just north of West sitting next to me,” she said. “He just took my hand and held it.”
In his 20-minute speech, Obama also spoke of the bombings in Boston and of the flooded areas of the Mississippi River.
“While the eyes of the world may have been fixed on places far away, our hearts have also been here,” he said. “And to the families and neighbors grappling with unbearable loss, we are here to say, you are not alone, you are not forgotten. We may not all live here in Texas, but we’re neighbors, too.”
He said it was fair to say that most people outside of Texas had never heard of West before the explosion, “and I suspect that’s the way most people in West like it.” But he also said Americans and many others around the world have come to know of West.
“George W. and Laura Bush spoke longingly about the kolaches and the even better company as they’ve driven through West,” said Obama, who earlier in the day had attended a dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas.
Former President George W. Bush sent remarks, read by Baylor President Ken Starr: “We are sad we cannot be with you for this memorial service … All who are suffering are in our hearts and prayers.”
Carol VanBeek said her cousin Joey Pustejousky, a West volunteer firefighter who died in the blast, would have been honored by the show of support for firefighters from across Texas and the nation.
“Their hearts were with us today. You just feel it, and Joey would be amazed,” she said.
The memorial began with a procession of fire trucks from all over Texas, many from small volunteer fire departments like West’s.
Trucks from Bryan, Gun Barrel City, Galveston, Noonday and Normangee rumbled slowly past the Baylor arena, passing under a huge American flag hung from the extended ladders of two fire trucks.
The memorial service ended with firefighters presenting relatives of the fallen with flags and helmets and the solemn tolling of bells after each man’s name was read. A dispatcher got on the microphone, and, as sorrowful wails filled the arena, paid final respects: “The bell has been struck for their last alarm.”
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.