The memorial for firefighters killed in the West fertilizer plant explosion on April 17 brought together 10,000 people Thursday, most of which were first responders from across Texas.
Volunteers and professional firefighters and EMTs crowded the streets, and parked their fire engines and ambulances three and four deep across one entire side of University Parks Drive on the Baylor campus. Inside the Ferrell Center, Baylor’s basketball complex, entire sections were dressed in blue uniforms, their badges shrouded with small black bands.
The floor of the center contained 500 members of the families of the fallen men, and another 500 firefighters, facing a row of 12 coffins draped with U.S. and Texas flags with huge poster-sized photos of each of the firefighters killed. At the end of the three-hour service, they were ringed by bagpipers and drummers from fire departments around Texas, who played “Amazing Grace.”
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended, along with Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, and representatives from the U.S. Fire Administration, and Texas State Fire Marshall’s office, along with Ken Starr, president of Baylor.
Obama praised the courage of the men who responded to the fire and who were killed in the subsequent explosion.
“We give thanks for the courage, compassion and incredible grace of the people of West,” he said. Obama said that West will be rebuilt because America needs towns like West, where everyone knows each other and people help one another.
“We may not live in Texas, but we’re neighbors too. We’re Americans, too,” he said. “This small town’s family is bigger now.”
He offered condolences to the families, adding “God is bigger than all of this, and he is here with us.”
Gov. Rick Perry spoke of the extraordinary courage and stories of each of the fallen firefighters.
“Their stories are an inspiration, but they are also heart-breaking,” Perry said.
Among those honored Thursday was Navarro County resident and firefighter Perry Calvin, 37, who was at an emergency medical technician class that night in West and responded along with some other students to the code. In a video tribute to each of the men killed, his friend, Ronald Burton, said that anyone who had the privilege of meeting Calvin would shortly experience three things: That Calvin would give his opinion, that he’d play a practical joke, and that he’d give any help he could.
“God had special plans for Perry,” he said.
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Read more about Thursday’s emotional ceremony from reporter Janet Jacobs.