Obama, Texas officials honor firefighters killed in fertilizer plant explosion

President Obama spoke at a memorial service for victims of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. He assured West that despite the turbulent week with the Boston Marathon bombings, the sorrow in Texas was not forgotten. (The Washington Post)

President Obama told the families and friends of the 12 firefighters who were killed in a massive fertilizer plant explosion near here last week that America had them in their prayers, even as so much of the nation’s attention was focused on the tragedy in Boston.

Obama joined Texas officials and thousands of first responders and community members to memorialize the firefighters, whose flag-draped coffins were in the front of the auditorium at Baylor University, about 20 miles from the site of the plant explosion in the city of West. A poster of each of the fallen firefighters — ages 26 to 52 — was placed before each coffin.

Authorities haven’t identified the cause of the blast, which killed three others and came just two days after bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon.

“While the eyes of the world may have been fixed on places far away, our hearts have also been here,” Obama 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.”

The president added that “no words adequately describe the courage that was displayed on that deadly night” but that what he can do “is offer the love and support and prayers of the nation.”

It was the second time in as many weeks that Obama had to console a grieving community after a tragedy, following a trip to Boston last week. Before he spoke, videorecorded eulogies quoted the tearful grandparents, parents, wives, relatives and friends of the fallen. At Baylor, the wails of crying babies and young children echoed through the Ferrell Center.

“I cannot match the power of the voices you just heard on that video,” Obama said. Alluding to the Books of Psalms, he said: “You have been tested, West. You have been tried. You have gone through fire. But you are and will always be surrounded by the abundance of love.”

Obama arrived by helicopter from Dallas, where he was attending the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. On the trip over, Obama’s helicopter circled the site of the fertilizer plant several times — a site of collapsed structures and charred ground. After the service, the president was scheduled to meet with families and friends of the firefighters.

“You dropped your schoolwork. You left your family, jumped in firetrucks and rushed to the flames,” Obama said. “All across America, people are thinking of you. They’re praying for you.”

Also speaking Thursday were Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).

“These are volunteers, ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage and a determination to do what they could to save lives,” Perry said. “There are no words that myself, the president or anybody else can say to ease the pain this community is suffering.”

“When the call went out for help, these men as well as others ran toward the danger,” Cornyn said. “Nothing will ever shake the memory of their heroism and their bravery.”

Several hundred emergency vehicles formed a procession outside the event. “The deafening blow collapsed buildings and broke hearts, but it could not break this community,” said Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the International Fallen Firefighters Foundation. “A group of brave men chose to fight an enormous fire knowing their lives were on the line. They would not have had it any other way.”

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.”

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Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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