By Caroline Brewton
And Rob Bradfield
Assistant City Editor
Twelve flag-draped caskets stood next to twelve smiling portraits of the first responders who died in last week’s explosion in West.
In front of each stood a uniformed figure. Some old and some young, some with the decorations of rank and office and some unadorned. Periodically a column of similar figures would march in front and raise a hand slowly in a salute. With a quick step to the side, the first responders change places and continue their vigil — a vigil they held from early Thursday morning until the service concluded Thursday evening.
The memorial service, which was attended by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, packed the Ferrell Center to capacity of around 10,000 people. Many of those who filled the actual arena were first responders themselves. They came in from all over the country — some coming from as far as Vancouver and Calgary, Canada — to honor their fallen brothers. Each one wore a black band around their badge to mourn their loss.
Aaron Abbie, a firefighter from Tool — northeast of Corsicana — said he attended the service out of a sense of camaraderie with the fallen first responders. So did his captain, Stephen James, and Billy Perez, director of the Fairfield ambulance service.
“Every man or woman that’s here, we’re all a family. We all support one another,” Abbie said. Abbie said he felt sad, but privileged to attend.
“I hope they know that they are part of this family, too,” Abbie said of the families of the victims and residents of the stricken town, which has already started the slow rebuilding process.
Perez, who echoed Abbie’s statement about camaraderie, said, “Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the victims.”
Many showed up early that morning to share their support with the grieving families and the residents of the devastated town. When officials opened the doors at 10 a.m., the line already stretched from the Ferrell Center beyond Bagby Avenue.
The procession began at 11 a.m.. Uniformed first responders marched beside kilted pipers and drummers underneath an archway made by two ladder trucks raising an American flag. Emergency vehicles joined the procession as they crossed LaSalle Avenue, moving down University Parks Drive into the Ferrell Center.
The Ferrell Center filled to capacity by 1:24 p.m., the crowd of first responders and other attendees far outnumbering the 2,849 residents of West. Many more gathered to watch at different locations around campus.
Additional chairs were placed on the floor, directly in front of the stage area, where families of the victims and residents of West, as well as some emergency personnel, were seated.
As the victims’ families began to file in past the caskets, a soft rain fell on the roof of the Ferrell Center. They were a group as different as the citizens of West themselves. There were suits, pearl snaps, cowboy hats and T-shirts, modern blouses and gingham dresses. More than once, one of the mourners would pass the casket of a loved one and, seeing the smiling portrait of one who would never come home, collapse. Each time, two firefighters would step forward and catch the person before they could fall before gently taking them to their seats.
In addition to the president and first lady, Sen. John Cornyn, Gov. Rick Perry, Baylor President Ken Starr, congressman Bill Flores and former congressman Chet Edwards were in attendance
Perry called the victims an inspiration, but also said their stories were heartbreaking.
“These were volunteers … ordinary people blessed with extraordinary courage,” he said.
The president, who arrived after a fly-over tour of the accident site on his way from Dallas, pledged his support to West in the wake of the accident that tore apart the small Texas town.
“You are not alone. You are not forgotten,” he said of the families of the victims, who have had to cope with the destruction of many buildings in addition to the death of loved ones. In a speech often interrupted by applause ,he praised the faith and dedication of the residents of West, and emphasized the bonds that drew together not just the area but the nation.
“We may not all live here in Texas but we’re neighbors, too,” Obama said. “We’re Americans, too. And we stand with you and we will not forget, and we’ll be there even after the cameras leave and after the attention turns elsewhere.”
Obama praised the courage of the firefighters, many of whom were described as always ready to help others when a call went out, and also the citizens of the town. He also praised members of the surrounding communities and others who reacted to help in the wake of the blast.
“That’s the thing about this tragedy. This small town’s family is bigger now.” And though there will be hard days ahead, he predicted, the love of the community will keep West going.
“Today I see in the people of West … that what makes West special isn’t going to go away,” he said. America needs small towns like West where “there’s always someone to call,” he said.
Video eulogies in which families and friends of the twelve victims spoke moved many in the audience to fond laughter and tears.
After the speeches, the last alarm, a ceremony to honor firefighters fallen in the line of duty, was sounded using a ceremonial bell. Each name was read, punctuated by the ringing of the bell. Afterward, the bell rang in the 5-5-5 alarm, calling the fallen one last time to duty.
As the last toll died, somewhere in the crowd on the arena floor, a lone bugler struck up “Taps.”
After the blowing of “Taps,” flags and firefighter helmets were presented to the families of the victims. The Honor Guard who conducted the ceremony reverently lifted flags, saluted and presented helmets to family members sitting in the front row. The ceremony proceeded solemnly, slowly and silently.
After the last flag was presented, the voice of a dispatcher crackled over the loudspeaker. She called each firefighter and EMT in turn, and when none responded she proclaimed their duty done.
After a period of silence, broken only by the quiet weeping of the bereaved, a lone piper mounted the stage. His kilted companions had slowly moved to surround the first responders and grieving families. Suddenly his pipes sprang to life with a mournful drone, and he began the first strains of “Amazing Grace.” After the first verse, the entire drum and pipe core sprang to life, enveloping those on the floor in a warm, humming ring of sound. The drums throbbed as the voices of the pipes rose and fell. Here and there in the crowd, a few snatches of the verses were sung softly.
As the families received the items, hands from the rows behind them reached forward, a wall of support for the grieving families. They were engulfed in embraces from those behind. As the memorial continued, some didn’t let go, but remained stretched forward, holding their neighbors.
“We all cried at the helmet presenting,” Abbie said of himself and colleagues.
Abbie said he was proud to be a firefighter.
“And also kind of sad at the same time,” James finished. Abbie lost his own father, a member of the military, when he was five years old. He remembers being handed his own father’s flag.
“It’s something they won’t forget,” he said.
Eventually everyone filtered out, leaving only a few grieving family members and the twelve caskets, draped in twelve flags.