WACO, TEXAS – It was a day that folks here say they’ll never forget.
President and Mrs. Obama joined thousands of firefighters and rescue personnel from across the country to honor 12 firefighters who perished in an explosion while battling a fire at a fertilizer plant.
Killed in blast were West firefighters Doug and Robert Snokhous, Morris Bridges, Cody Dragoo and Joey Pustejousky as well as Kenny Harris, Dallas Fire-Rescue; Cyrus Reed and Jerry Chapman, Abbott FD and West EMS; Perry Calvin, Merknel FD and Kevin Sanders, Bruceville Eddy FD/West EMS.
Two men who jumped into action to help – Jimmy Matus and Buck Uptmor – were made honorary West firefighters.
Baylor University students, police officers and citizens of all ages lined the sidewalks to watch firefighters march down the street, and the parade of fire and rescue apparatus. Wreaths and black bunting adorned some of the vehicles.
Many said they had heard the tribute to the fallen firefighters would be impressive, but they had no idea. The sight of 12 flag-draped caskets with a large picture of each of the fallen firefighters stopped some in their tracks when they entered the Ferrell Center.
Officials said more than 9,100 attended the ceremony in the arena, and more than 500 were in a nearby field.
Some arrived early to get through security, and waited quietly in the arena for hours. They rose to their feet when firefighters from West marched in, and again when Chief George Nors Sr. arrived in a wheelchair. Several of his crew gave him hugs.
As he was being wheeled down the aisle, cheers erupted from the sections of West residents. The crowd followed suit by standing and applauding.
Moments later, however, the same people were silent and wiping tears as they watched the families of the fallen heroes walk by the row of coffins. Some were so grief-stricken they had to be assisted by their firefighter escorts.
The first couple was emotional as they watched videos of parents, wives, brothers, sisters and children sharing memories of their loved ones.
“For this state, for our country, these have been trying and difficult days. We gather here in Texas to mourn the brave men who went through fire and all those who have been taken from us,” Obama told the crowd.
“That’s what happened last Wednesday, when a fire alarm sounded across a quiet Texas evening. As we’ve heard, the call went out to volunteers -- not professionals -- people who just love to serve. People who want to help their neighbors. A call went out to farmers and car salesmen; and welders and funeral home directors; the city secretary and the mayor. It went out to folks who are tough enough and selfless enough to put in a full day’s work and then be ready for more.
And together, you answered the call. You dropped your schoolwork, left your families, jumped in fire trucks, and rushed to the flames. And when you got to the scene, you forgot fear and you fought that 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 changed forever.
While Boston was dealing with another tragedy, they also were thinking and praying for the small community of West.
But know this: While the eyes of the world may have been fixed on places far away, our hearts have also been here in your time of tribulation. And even amidst such sorrow and so much pain, we recognize God’s abundance. We give thanks for the courage and the compassion and the incredible grace of the people of West.”
He vowed that after the cameras leave, the residents of West won’t be forgotten. They can count on support as they rebuild.
“Until last week, I think it’s fair to say that few outside this state had ever heard of West. And I suspect that’s the way most people in West like it…Most of the people in West know everybody in West. Many of you are probably descended from those first settlers -- hardy immigrants who crossed an ocean and kept on going. So for you, there’s no such thing as a stranger. When someone is in need, you reach out to them and you support them, and you do what it takes to help them carry on.”
Obama said all the presidents who attend the opening of the Bush library in Dallas earlier in the day shared thoughts and prayers. And, “George W. and Laura Bush spoke longingly about the kolaches.”
At times, the president paused as he struggled to keep his emotions.
“Our thoughts are with those who face a long road -- the wounded, the heartbroken, the families who lost their homes and possessions in an instant. They’re going to need their friends in West, but they’re also going to need their friends in Texas, and their friends all across this country. They’ll still need you to answer that call. They will need those things that are lasting and true. For, as Scripture teaches us, “a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
To the people of West, just as we’ve seen the love you share in better times, as friends and brothers and sisters, these hard days have shown your ability to stand tall in times of unimaginable adversity…”
Following the three-hour ceremony, Obama met privately with the families of the firefighters who were killed.
The fire service traditions continued as a bell was rung 5-5-5 – signaling a firefighter lost.
The family of each fallen hero was presented with a flag and their loved one’s helmet. There were tears flowing throughout the arena including on stage as they accepted and hugged the flags.
Hundreds of pipers and drummers joined in to play Amazing Grace. At the end, a lone piper continued playing and the sound faded as he exited the arena.
A pipe and drum corps from Calgary Fire Department traveled 14 hours to get to Waco to pay their respects to the fallen firefighters.
Firefighter Rob Zimich didn’t see the ceremony – except while he was marching in and performing. “We were sequestered in a gym with the others for about three and a half hours,” he said with a laugh. “But, that’s OK. We were here. That’s what counts.”
It was a first firefighter funeral for Valley Mills, Texas Firefighter Nick Guerrero, who attended the fire academy with Perry Calvin.
“It was a perfect way to honor a fallen hero,” he said.
Fellow firefighter James Jimenez thought the ceremony would bring comfort to many.
Even before the service started, Michael Chavez said he was impressed with the dignity displayed. “It’s hard to describe…”
Obama said he has no doubt that the community will survive.
“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. You saw it in the voices on those videos. You see it in the firefighters and first responders who are here.”