By Seema Mehta and Christi Parsons
Tribune Washington BureaU
---- — WACO, Texas — With the flag-draped coffins of 12 first responders before him, President Barack Obama lauded the courage of the volunteer firefighters who rushed toward the scene of a massive fertilizer plant explosion and gave their lives trying to help their neighbors.
“No words adequately describe the courage that was displayed on that deadly night,” he said at a memorial service yesterday. “What I can do is offer the love, the support and the prayers of a nation.”
Last week’s blast, which was caused by a fire, killed 14 people, nearly all volunteer first responders. It also leveled parts of West, a close-knit town of 2,800.
Obama traveled to Waco after attending the opening of President George W. Bush’s presidential library in Dallas. En route, his helicopter passed over the site of the fertilizer plant, circling it a few times to view the flattened structures and scarred earth where the explosions occurred.
The president spoke to more than 9,000 people gathered at a memorial at Baylor University for the victims.
“The call went out to volunteers, not professionals, people who just love to serve, people who want to help their neighbors,” he said. “It went out to folks tough and selfless enough to put in a full day’s work and then be ready for more. Together, you answered the call. … When you got to the scene, you forgot fear and you fought the blaze as hard as you could, knowing the danger, buying time so others could escape. And then about 20 minutes after the first alarm, the earth shook and the sky went dark and West was changed forever.”
Obama quoted the Book of Psalms and assured the crowd that Americans would remember the town.
“We stand with you, and we do not forget,” he said.
“And we’ll be there even after the cameras leave and after attention turns elsewhere.”
Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community.”
He praised the work of those throughout the region who responded to the disaster, from the hospital employees who worked through the night tending the wounded, to school district officials who opened their doors to displaced West students, to the students at Baylor who stood in line for hours to donate blood.
“That’s the thing about this tragedy. This small town’s family is bigger now. It extends beyond the boundaries of West,” Obama said. “And in the days ahead, this love and support will be more important than ever because there will be moments of doubt and pain, the temptation to wonder how this community will ever fully recover, the families who have such remarkable men … there are going to be times when they simply don’t understand how this could have happened.”