President Barack Obama led a Texas town in memorializing the emergency workers and residents killed in a fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco.
For the second time in a week, the president stood before mourners to offer the thoughts and prayers of the nation and praise for those who volunteered to help and who stand ready to place themselves in peril to aid fellow citizens.
“Even amid such sorrow and pain, we recognize God’s abundance,” he said at Baylor University’s Ferrell Center in Waco, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of West, Texas, a tight-knit farming community of 2,800 that was home to the industrial plant. “Your country will remain ever-ready to help you recover and rebuild.”
The service was to honor the firefighters and emergency medical personnel who were among at least 14 people who died in the April 17 explosion at Adair Grain Inc.’s fertilizer facility. The blast generated a magnitude 2.1-degree earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and damaged structures in a 37-block area.
On the trip to Waco from Dallas, the president’s helicopter circled the site of the disaster.
State and federal investigators are seeking the cause of the blast. In the months before the explosion, agencies from the Homeland Security Department to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board were faulted by government watchdogs for taking too long to act or failing to persuade regulators to impose stricter safety rules on facilities that make or store dangerous chemicals.
Democratic lawmakers today asked congressional investigators for a report on regulatory lapses.
“We are also concerned that such an explosion may be possible at similar facilities across the nation and that other workers and the communities may not be adequately protected,” Representatives George Miller of California and Joe Courtney of Connecticut, wrote to the Government Accountability Office, the investigating arm of Congress.
In West, “people are really excited and overwhelmed that the president’s coming,” Jenene Picha, 39, manager of the Czech American Restaurant on Main Street, said before Obama arrived. “I knew most of the people killed, known them for a long time. It’s heartbreaking. Doesn’t seem real, still.”
The president’s day mixed celebration with sorrow. He traveled to Waco from Dallas, where he had joined four former presidents in the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
A week ago, the president was at an interfaith service, offering words of comfort to thousands shaken by terror attacks that left three dead and more than 260 injured in the Boston Marathon bombings. Today in Texas, though circumstances are different, Obama said the emptiness and heartache from the loss of loved ones is the same.
“Today I see in the people of West, in your eyes, is what makes West special isn’t going away,” Obama said. “It has simply revealed who you’ve always been.”
In a final tribute to the fallen firefighters, their last names were read and bells chimed, as their last alarm.
The explosion blew through a 3-foot concrete foundation and left a crater 93 feet by 10 feet, Special Agent Robert Champion of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told reporters yesterday in West.
Pieces blown from the plant have been found throughout the damaged area, and other wreckage could be seen in a field, about 150 yards east of the blast site.
The fertilizer plant was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a unit of the Labor Department, 1985. The risk plan filed with government regulators listed no flammable chemicals.
The Homeland Security, Labor, Agriculture and Transportation departments have joined the Environmental Protection Agency, the Chemical Safety Board and the ATF in the investigation, along with state authorities.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, said it’s “a little premature” to reach a conclusion about the cause of the explosion and a course of action. He questioned he plant’s proximity to homes and a school and suggested local zoning regulations may need to be reexamined.
In West, people are sorting out their lives and struggling to regain their footing. Charity groups have been making donations of everything from food to clothing, said Picha, the restaurant manager. The General Motors Foundation donated a $100,000 grant to the American Red Cross for shelter, meals and relief efforts to those in need, Picha said.
“People are coming from everywhere to lend a hand. It’s been great.”