By Justin Sink - 04/25/13 09:38 PM EDT
President Obama pledged to the small Texas town still reeling from a catastrophic fertilizer plant explosion last week "the love and support and prayers of the nation" at a memorial service Thursday in Waco, Texas.
A row of a dozen flag-draped coffins stood before the president as he spoke of the West, Texas, first responders who died as they fought the blaze.
"Our thoughts are with those that face a long road," Obama said. "The wounded, the heartbroken, the families who lost their homes and possessions."
But, the president said, he found inspiration in the small town that embodied American ideals of charity and selflessness in the aftermath of the deadly explosion.
"Instead of changing who you are, this tragedy has simply revealed who you've always been," Obama said.
"We need people who so love their neighbors as themselves that they're willing to lay down their lives for them," he continued. "America needs towns like West."
Obama also pledged that the support of the federal government would continue "even after the cameras leave."
"To the families and neighbors grappling with unbearable loss — you are not alone. You are not forgotten," Obama said.
Before arriving at the ceremony, the president surveyed the damage aboard Marine One, observing the 10-foot deep crater that now marks the site of the blast. Buildings and homes near the factory have been leveled, and emergency responders are just beginning what will be an extensive and costly cleanup.
The president came to Waco from Dallas, where in the morning he attended the dedication of former President George W. Bush's presidential library. Former Solicitor General Ken Starr, reading a statement from Bush, extended the former president's "heartfelt sympathies."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who spoke earlier, told families they should be inspired by "the spirit that drove those men we love."
"First responders know better than anyone that there's no such thing as a routine emergency," Perry said, "but it didn't slow them down as they raced toward that burning factory."
Following the memorial service, the president and first lady Michelle Obama plan to meet with the families and close friends of the firefighters lost in the explosion.