WACO, Texas — President Barack Obama consoled a rural Texas community rocked by a deadly fertilizer plant explosion, telling mourners Thursday they are not alone in their grief and that they will have the nation’s support to rebuild from the devastation.
“This small town’s family is bigger now,” Obama said at a memorial service at Baylor University for victims of last week’s explosion in the nearby town of West that killed 14 and injured 200 others. Nearly 10,000 people — a crowd more than triple the size of West’s population of 2,700 — gathered to remember the first responders killed in the blast.
“To the families, the neighbors grappling with unbearable loss, we are here to say you are not alone. You are not forgotten,” said Obama, who later took a helicopter tour of the blast site .
The April 17 explosion left a crater more than 90 feet wide and damaged dozens of buildings, displacing many residents. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates it caused more than $100 million in damage. Crews were sifting the rubble to search for clues to what caused the explosion or whether foul play was involved.
The blast came about 20 minutes after a fire was reported at West Fertilizer. Ten of those killed were first responders who sped out to the nighttime blaze.
The memorial service honored those first responders and two civilians who tried to fight the fire and were posthumously named volunteer first responders.
The service opened with a projected slideshow set to country music. It showed images of the men from their childhood, their weddings and other moments throughout lives. Mourners were given programs with profiles of each of the victims, describing their lives, their values and their faith.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, speaking on behalf of the state’s congressional delegation, and Gov. Rick Perry also spoke at the service.
Obama added his appearance to a planned trip to Texas for Thursday’s opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library at Southern Methodist University.