WACO (April 25, 2013)—Firefighters sounded a bell 12 times Thursday as the names of the 12 men who died in the massive fertilizer plant explosion in West were read in a traditional salute to the fallen during a memorial service at Baylor’s Ferrell Center attended by thousands.
Tears flowed freely Thursday afternoon as family, friends and colleagues remembered the 12 in video eulogies as men who loved their families, their communities and who were bound together by a dedication to service and a willingness to risk their lives to save others.
The ceremonial caskets of the 10 fallen first responders and two honorary volunteer firefighters were lined up on the floor of the arena in front of the stage from which President Barack Obama, Gov. Rick Perry and others spoke.
“I cannot match the power of the voices you just heard on that video and no words adequately describe the courage that was displayed on that deadly night,” the president said.
“What I can do is offer the love and support and prayers of the nation.”
“To the families and neighbors grappling with unbearable loss, we are here to say you are not alone, you are not forgotten. We’re neighbors too, we’re Americans too, and we stand with you and we do not forget and we’ll be there even after the cameras leave and the attention turns elsewhere.”
“You have been tested West, you have been tried, you have gone through fire, but you have been and always will be surrounded by an abundance of love,” he said.
“You see it in the firefighters and first responders who are here.”
“All across America people are praying for you and thinking of you and when they see the faces of those families they understand that these are not strangers, these are neighbors and that’s why we know that we will get through this,” he said.
Perry said each of the 12 men “had friends and family and hopes and dreams bound together by a sense of community.”
“They’re volunteers, ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage and the determination to do what they could to save lives.”
“They’re the ones who proudly say ‘not on my watch.’”
“Just know that the spirit that drove those men...lives on, in their fellow volunteers and the families and friends they left behind,” he said.
“Let their deeds serve as an inspiration,” he said.
“We will never forget what happened here, nor forget the sacrifices of those who first responded,” he said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who introduced the president, said that in such times “we find ourselves asking why.”
“As we remember the fallen, let us also ask the question ‘how,’” he said.
“How does one find such great courage as these men did to face overwhelming danger on behalf of their community, their families and friends? How does one find such selflessness to put the safety of everyone else before your own? How does one find such love to be willing to lay down your life so others might live?”
“This will forever be the legacy of those who ran toward the fire last week,” he said.
An estimated 10,000 firefighters, family members and area residents packed the Ferrell Center Thursday for the service, some arriving as early as 4 a.m. to line up outside of the arena.
The arena was filled to capacity by 1:30 p.m. and those who couldn’t get in were directed to alternative viewing sites at Waco Hall, the Bill Daniel Student Center and the Student Life Center as well as at the Turner Riverfront Athletic Complex.
The service started late because Marine One, carrying Mr. Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama from Dallas where they attended the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, circled West several times en route to Waco.
The president received a standing ovation as he rose to speak.
So did an injured West firefighter who was rolled into the arena in a wheelchair, his arms bandaged, about 30 minutes before the start of the service.
Earlier, a long, solemn procession of firefighters from around Central Texas, the state and the U.S. moved from a staging area a half-mile from the Baylor campus to the arena.
Firefighters from departments that lost members in the explosion carried the helmets of the fallen first responders into the Ferrell Center.
One of the helmet-bearers was sixth-grader Darren Marek of Abbott, the son of Abbott’s EMS head Tom Marek.
Darren was close to Cyrus Reed, an Abbott volunteer firefighter who was attending an EMT training course when the fire broke out and rushed to help.
The procession was so long that police scrambled to find space for firefighters to park the trucks.
Brian Crawford, the fire chief in the Dallas suburb of Plano, accompanied 11 other firefighters from his department.
He said he wanted to show "we are all a family."
The service was organized by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force to remember the firefighters and first responders who died in the April 17 explosion in West.
(John Carroll, Ke’Sha Lopez, Jim Peeler, Kyle Muscarello, Ben Walnick and Paul Gately contributed to this report)