Caskets of West fertilizer plant explosion victims, at memorial service on April 25 at Baylor University. (credit: CBSDFW.COM)

Caskets of West fertilizer plant explosion victims, at memorial service on April 25 at Baylor University. (credit: CBSDFW.COM)

WACO (CBSDFW.COM) – It started with a procession that included dozens of fire trucks and cars and pickups filled with men and women in uniform. All the vehicles entered under an archway formed by the ladders from two fire trucks with an American flag strung between them. The memorial service for those killed in the West Fertilizer Company explosion was held at the Ferrell Center on the Baylor University campus.

President Barack Obama, Governor Rick Perry, firefighters and first responders from all across Texas and the country gathered in Waco to honor those who died in last week’s explosion in West.

The service began with a photo slide show projected on a screen that hung above the 12 flag-draped coffins. The pictures showed joyous and treasured times from victims childhood and adult lives.

Chief Ronald J. Siarnicki, Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, opened the memorial speaking of the one dozen firefighters who were killed. “Twelve of those men sacrificed their lives for their community. That is what firefighters are often called to do,” he told the crowd. “Honor, tradition and courage, these are elements that make up a firefighters commitment to their fire service brothers and sisters, to their communities and to their families.”

Chief Ernest Mitchell, the U.S. Fire Administrator, read aloud the names of those killed in the blast and spoke personally of the victims — about their lives in and out of the firehouse.

The explosion in West killed 14 people, including 10 first responders and two people considered honorary first responders. Each of those victims was remembered through heartfelt and sometimes very emotional video tributes.

Governor Perry told the estimated 10,000 people attending the service that he was glad the state had formed the Star of Texas Awards to honor first responders. Perry said rescuers take necessary risks everyday. “Our first responders know they’re placing themselves in danger, whether they’re braving the flames of a fire, whether they’re transporting an injured via a helicopter, or racing to the scene of an accident. First responders know better than anyone that there’s no such thing as a routine emergency.”

Favorite songs and music videos of the first responders were played periodically throughout the service.

Bill Gardner, the First Vice President of the Fireman and Fire Marshals Association of Texas, took time to talk about why people volunteer to be firefighters. “Those reasons are as varied as the men and women who participate and do that,” he said. “The reasons vary, but the commitments the same. That reason to stay is that you get to be part of something bigger than yourself.”

President Obama arrived early in West and toured the damage from the air. He saw the 10 feet deep and 93 feet wide crater left at the site of the fertilizer company.

(credit: CBS 11 News)

(credit: CBS 11 News)

President Obama told those gathered that, “We give thanks for the courage and the compassion and incredible grace of the people of West.” He said much leadership has been shown during the tragedy.

Mr. Obama said definitively, “You are not alone. You are not forgotten. 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 president reassured those in attendance and watching online and TV that after the attention wanes from the happenings in West, “your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community.”

Mr. Obama said what makes West special is what makes it familiar, the people who live there and neighbors that can be counted on. He spoke of the less than 3,000 residents, many of whom knew each other.

“The call went out to volunteers, not professionals; people who just love to serve, people who want to help their neighbors,” he recalled for attendees. “A call went out to farmers, and car salesmen, and welders, and funeral home directors, the City Secretary and the Mayor. And together you answered the call.”

In closing President Obama spoke of the love that people have for the town of West. “You have been tested West, you have been tried, you have gone through fire. But you are and always will be surrounded by an abundance of love.”

After the service, the President and First Lady Michelle Obama set aside time to privately visit with the families friends of those killed in the explosion.

The memorial then had a last alarm bell service for the fallen firefighters, ringing for each who perished. The bell ringing is reminiscent of a time when fire bells rang to call firefighters to an alarm and then, again, to signal that the alarm had ended.

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