Thousands Gather at Baylor to Honor First Responders Killed in West Explosion

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    President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at Memorial Service for First Responders Killed in West Explosion (Photos by Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing and Communications)
  • Full-Size Image: Ken Starr at West Memorial
    Ken Starr photo courtesy of Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications
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    Baylor President Ken Starr with Texas Governor Rick Perry and firefighter officials. Photo courtesy of Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications.
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April 26, 2013

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Contact: Terry Goodrich,(254) 710-3321

WACO, Texas (April 25, 2013) -- President Barack Obama, Baylor University President Ken Starr, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other dignitaries joined together to comfort thousands of mourners gathered at Baylor University on Thursday to honor 12 first responders killed trying to save others in the April 17 explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

"No words are adequate to describe the courage that was displayed on that deadly night," Obama told more than 10,000 people who filled Baylor's Ferrell Center for a memorial service. "What I can do is offer the love and support and prayers of the nation . . . We may not all live in Texas, but we are neighbors, too."

Hundreds of relatives and friends from West and nearby communities, thousands of firefighters from across Texas and the nation, and members of the general public came together in remembrance of 15 people who died and more than 200 who were injured. The event was held by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force.

Baylor President Ken Starr, paying tribute to those who reached out to help West during and after the tragedy, quoted poet Robert Frost's famous verse that "Good fences make good neighbors."

But "Today there are no fences," Starr said. "We're all together as neighbors."

Twelve flag-draped coffins, along with photos of the men who lost their lives, had been placed in a line before relatives and dignitaries. En route to Waco, Obama's helicopter flew over the ruins of West. And in the hours before the service, fire trucks from hundreds of communities drove in a procession, accompanied by uniformed firefighters on foot, many bearing American flags.

Chief Ronald Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, said that the "brave men who chose to fight this fire knew they were putting their lives on the line.

"They would not have had it any other way."

Gov. Perry said that the volunteers who ran toward danger rather than away were "ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage."

Some who spoke, both from the stage and bereaved family members in video tributes, quoted John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Relatives told of the traits that made the fallen firefighters unique: one young man's deep dimple, another whose signature car was a red Dodge Charger with a Superman logo, and still another who hid little notes around the house for his wife to find -- notes saying "I miss you" and "I love you."

They repeatedly said their loved ones were people who "would do anything for anyone."

Obama told the crowd, "I cannot match the power of the voices you just heard on the videos."

He quoted from the book of Psalms: "For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us . . . We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us brought us out to a place of abundance."

"You have been tested, West," Obama said. "You have been tried and gone through fire. But you have been surrounded by love . . . . Even amid so much sorrow and pain, we recognize God's abundance. We give thanks for the courage, compassion and incredible grace of the people of West . . .

"This small town's family is bigger now," he said. "There will be moments of doubt and pain and the temptation to wonder how this community will ever recover . . . But today I see in the people of West, in your eyes, that what makes West special isn't going to go away. . . This tragedy reveals what you've always been."

Baylor University has set up a fund to accept gifts that will benefit the community of West. Gifts can be made online at or in person at Clifton Robinson Tower (700 S. University Parks Drive) outside of the Cashier's Office. Gifts are also accepted at the Baylor Bookstore.

Media coverage of the memorial service:


Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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