WACO, Texas (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, standing before a line of flag-draped coffins, consoled family and friends on Thursday at a memorial service for firefighters killed in a massive explosion last week at a Texas fertiliser plant.
The deaths of 14 people, nearly all of them emergency responders, ripped a hole in the heart of the town of West, where farming is a way of life and where many people volunteer for the fire department in their spare time.
“To the families, the neighbours grappling with unbearable loss, we are here to say you are not alone. You are not forgotten. We may not all live here in Texas, but we’re neighbours, too,” Obama told more than 9,000 mourners who packed a basketball arena at Baylor University in Waco.
The April 17 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co plant obliterated a residential section of West, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Waco.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the blast, which also injured some 200 people.
A video testimonial for each victim were read by a relative or friend and broadcast on a large screen behind the podium.
In one video, Carmen Bridges, wife of Morris Wayne Bridges Jr., 40, fought back tears as she told of the last time she had seen her husband. As he rushed out the door to respond to the fire in West, he stopped to hug his 2-year-old son.
“‘Daddy loves you and he’ll be right back,'” Bridges recalled her husband telling the boy. “And he didn’t come back.”
As the name of each victim was read aloud, a bell rang, echoing through the vast arena, where a dozen coffins - most covered with U.S. flags, and a couple covered with Texas flags - were lined up in front of the stage.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, both wiped tears from their eyes as bagpipers played “Amazing Grace” and the song filled the arena.
The April 15 Boston Marathon bombings and the search for the suspects last week often overshadowed the Texas tragedy in the national news media.
But Obama sought to assure Texans they were in his thoughts. He vowed that federal and state authorities would help to rebuild the town of 2,800 residents.
“Know this, for the eyes of the world may have been fixed on places far away, our hearts have also been here through times of tribulation,” Obama said.
Before the ceremony, red and white lights twinkled along Baylor’s University Parks Drive as fire trucks and ambulances from across Texas approached. Along the road, people took pictures, but many watched in silence.
Bagpipe players and a colour guard led a procession of members of fire departments that lost personnel in the blast. West emergency medical technicians cried as they walked hand in hand with members of the emergency medical technicians from nearby Abbott, Texas.
“Coming to memorials, when you’re part of this brotherhood, one of the biggest brotherhoods in the world created for the purpose of protecting others, that’s just what you do,” said Tito Rodriguez, an assistant fire chief with the Clute Fire Department near Houston.
James Bruno waited until he parked to don the freshly ironed blue Irving, Texas, fire department shirt for the service. Walking with his wife, he said he felt a certain kinship with those who lost their lives in the explosion.
“They made the ultimate sacrifice trying to help everyone in their own town out,” he said.
The town had 33 volunteer firefighters. Five were killed, as were four paramedics from nearby towns who rushed to the scene. Among the others killed was an off-duty Dallas firefighter who lived in West and a local welder who went to the plant to help.
Obama praised the courage of people ”who so love their neighbours as themselves that they are willing to lay down their lives for each other.
“America needs towns like West. That’s what makes this country great, it’s towns like West,” he said.
Other speakers included Texas Governor Rick Perry and Baylor University President Kenneth Starr, best known for his investigation of the sex scandal involving then-President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky during the 1990s.
“These are volunteers, ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage,” Perry said of the fallen first responders.
Additional reporting by Laura Heinauer. Editing by David Lindsey, Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Cooney