President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a memorial for the victims of the West Fertilizer explosion (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing and Communications)
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a memorial for the victims of the West Fertilizer explosion (Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing and Communications)

Obama, Bible play big in West memorial

President Obama, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and others also praise courage of firefighters killed in April 17 blast.

By Marv Knox and Jeff Brumley

Today’s memorial service for 12 firefighters killed in West, Texas, on April 17 was laced with prayer, scripture and the theme that tragedy brings people and communities  together.

Even President Obama came bearing a quotation from the Bible.

“The Book of Psalms tells us, ‘for you, O God, have tested us, you have tried us, and you have brought us to a place of abundance,’” Obama said at the beginning of his remarks in the Ferrell Center at Baylor University.

That applies directly to West, where the fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 and rendered at least 70 homes uninhabitable.

“You have been tested, West -- you have been tried – but you will always be surrounded by the abundance of love,” Obama said.

The service ran nearly three hours and was attended by surviving family members, at least 4,000 uniformed first-responders and thousands of others. In addition to Obama, featured speakers included Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Sen. John Cornyn and officials with a number of firefighting groups.

“Taps” was played for the victims and a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.” The event was preceded and followed by a miles-long march and procession of fire and other emergency vehicles.

Obama flew to Waco from Dallas, where he had participated in the dedication of the George W. Bush Library.

West remembered

The president told West residents gathered at Baylor that the federal government will stand with the town long after the cameras are gone. Self-determination will also remain.

“There will be moments of doubt and pain and the temptation to wonder if this community will ever fully recover,” the president said. “But today I see in the people of West . . . that what makes West special isn’t going away.”

Obama also praised John Crowder, the pastor of First Baptist Church in West, for encouraging his people and the community and for holding outdoor services on Sunday at the damaged church.

“He said what happened is terrible, but God is bigger than all of this,” Obama said.

Family members of the volunteer firefighters killed in West – whose caskets were lined before the stage of the 9,300-seat arena – shared video-taped memories of their fallen loved ones.

‘No routine emergencies’

Perry shared his admiration for first-responders, and especially for those who are volunteers and still flee toward danger.

“Our first-responders know they’re placing themselves in danger,” Perry said. “First-responders know better than anyone there’s no such thing as a ‘routine emergency.’”

Those who died in West knew that, he said.

“Each of the men who lost their lives, they had stories. They each had friends and families and hopes and dreams. But the true common thread that bound them together was their love of community ….”

The first-responders who died were “ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage,” Perry added.

Cornyn brought scripture back into the arena, describing the courage of those who died in West as biblical in proportion.

“Today, we’ve been reminded … ‘There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend,’” Cornyn said. “Today, we honor the lives of 12 great men who gave their lives in an enduring act of love for their families, their neighbors and their community.”

Baylor University President Ken Starr recalled the late Robert Frost, who wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

“Today, there are no fences because we’re all neighbors, standing arm in arm,” Starr said.

“We here in Waco love our neighbor, West,” he said, mentioning numerous West landmarks and events, including its famous bakeries and its Westfest celebration on Labor Day weekend.

Starr also read a message from former U.S. President George W. Bush, who dedicated his presidential library in Dallas earlier in the day.

“We are sad we cannot be with you,” Bush wrote. “All you who are suffering are in our thoughts and prayers. Stay strong, and may God bless you.”

Finding comfort

Sabra Rasco, a firefighter with the Navarro Mills Volunteer Fire Department, said it was overwhelming to see the array of people onhand during the service.

"It's unbelievable the support the community has given," she said, adding that one of the first-responders killed in the blast was from her department.

In West, meanwhile, “things are going well – especially emotionally and spiritually,” Crowder said.

The pastor said it brought people comfort to participate in the outdoor service Obama referenced.

“There was some healing and comfort in actually seeing each other,” he said. Until then, most had checked on each other and generally knew who was OK.

“But until you actually see each other and hug, you don’t really feel they’re OK. So, we had plenty of tears and lots of hugs.”

Pulling together

The memorial service – and especially Obama’s presence and the world attention it’s getting – would have the same impact for the entire City of West, said Terry Henderson, state disaster-relief director for Texas Baptist Men.

“It kind of pulls the community together and helps them understand that other people care about them,” Henderson said of the memorial, which he could not attend.

Many of the visiting emergency personnel firefighter honor guards that participated in the procession and other portions of the memorial stayed at a Baptist-run camp near West, Henderson said.

Various churches, along with TBM, also provided vans to get family members of the deceased to the Baylor campus today, he said.

Henderson, himself a retired firefighter, said the global attention on the memorial is also a boost for volunteer firefighters and for small-town departments.

“This is a tiny city, and now … they are getting recognized with some of the big cities,” he said.

Obama echoed that sentiment, telling those at the memorial that the world’s eyes have been largely on Boston following the bombing there, and on flooding in the Midwest.

“But know this,” he said. “While the eyes of the world may have been fixed on places far away, our hearts have been here.”

With reporting by Daniel Wallace