WACO, Texas (AP) — President Barack Obama on Thursday consoled a rural Texas community rocked by a deadly fertilizer plant explosion, telling mourners they are not alone in their grief and they will have the nation’s support to rebuild from the devastation.
“This small town’s family is bigger now,” Obama said during a memorial service at Baylor University for victims of last week’s explosion in nearby West, Texas, that killed 14 and injured 200. Nearly 10,000 gathered to remember the first responders killed in the blast, a crowd more than triple the size of West’s entire population of 2,700.
“To the families, the neighbors grappling with unbearable loss, we are here to say you are not alone. You are not forgotten,” Obama said to applause. “We may not all live here in Texas, but we’re neighbors too. We’re Americans too, and we stand with you.”
The April 17 explosion left a crater more than 90 feet wide and damaged dozens of buildings, displacing many residents from their homes. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates it caused more than $100 million in damage, and crews were sifting the rubble to search for clues to what caused the explosion or whether foul play was involved.
The blast came about 20 minutes after a fire was reported at the West Fertilizer. Ten of those killed were first responders who sped out to the nighttime blaze.
The memorial service honored those first responders and two civilians who tried to fight the fire and were posthumously named volunteer first responders. Among the dead were brothers Douglas and Robert Snokhous, West High School graduates who volunteered together for the town’s fire department for more than 13 years.
As Obama spoke, the gymnasium lit up with the flashes of cameras and cellphones, glimmering like stars in the dimly lit room. The president spoke for 16 minutes, quoting scripture and lauding the men whose flag-draped coffins laid before him. “When you got to the scene, you forgot fear and you fought that blaze as hard as you could, knowing the danger,” Obama said.
The service opened with a photo slide show set to country music that was projected onto a movie screen. It showed images of the men from their childhood, their weddings and other moments throughout lives filled with children and friends. Mourners were given programs with full-page profiles of each of the victims, describing their lives, their values and their faith.
“How does one find such love to be willing to lay down your life so that others may live?” asked Texas Sen. John Cornyn, speaking on behalf of the state’s congressional delegation. “This will forever be the legacy of those who ran toward the fire last week.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry eulogized the unpaid first responders, lamenting that each had a personal story and journey that drew to a close too soon.
“These are volunteers. Ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage and a determination to do what they could to save lives,” he said. “They’re the ones who proudly said ‘not on my watch’ in the moments immediately following that explosion.”