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.”