WACO, Texas — Thousands of firefighters from as far away as Calgary, Canada went to Waco Thursday to attend a memorial for victims of last week’s deadly explosion in the town of West.
“It’s a brotherhood,” said Capt. Dan Frederick of the Calgary Fire Department.
A procession with thousands of firefighters and hundreds of engines and ambulances departed from West and arrived in Waco at about noon.
Firefighters from almost 250 different departments exited their vehicles and marched into the Ferrell Center at Baylor University for the service.
Many relatives and survivors were among the mourners.
“As loved ones, you understood and supported their dedication to serve and support this community,” U.S. Fire Administrator Ernest Mitchell Jr. said. “As a nation, we are sincerely and eternally grateful.”
“These are volunteers... ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage and a determination to do what they could to save lives and property,” Gov. Rick Perry said during his tribute to the fallen firefighters. “Let their deeds serve as an inspiration for all of us to live lives of meaning, commit to serving our neighbors and communities.”
The official statements were punctuated by moving video testimonies from family members and friends, speaking about their heartbreaking losses.
“It’s our time to remember that we must continue to live our lives,” said Bill Gardner, first vice president of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas. “We must continue on.”
“While the light coming from the darkness is not as bright as we want it to be, it exists,” he added. “They will never be forgotten.”
Baylor University President Ken Starr mentioned how Texans knew to “check in to the Czech Inn” or stop along Interstate 35 to buy kolaches from the Czech Stop bakery.
Immigrants from the Czech Republic settled in Texas more than 100 years ago. Many of West’s businesses and streets still have Czech names.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to Waco by helicopter for the service after attending the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University, the 43rd president’s honorary library and museum.
Their helicopter circled over the explosion site in West before landing in Waco.
Former President George W. Bush sent regrets that he was unable to attend the memorial.
Twelve first responders were killed on April 17 when the West Fertilizer Co. plant exploded. The blast, which was strong enough to register as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep in its wake.
In all, 15 people were killed and an estimated 145 homes were destroyed. On Wednesday, a trade group estimated the cost of the losses to be $100 million.
Kenny “Lucky” Harris, a Dallas Fire Rescue captain who was volunteering to help battle the blaze in West, was buried on Wednesday.