STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Nearly 10,000 mourners gathered yesterday to honor the men who died fighting a fire in a fertilizer plant in Texas. They packed the basketball arena on the campus of Baylor University in Waco. At least 14 people died when that fire led to an explosion in the little town of West - which is just north of Waco.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING)
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It was a stirring scene on the campus of Baylor University yesterday morning. Thousands upon thousands of firemen and paramedics in dress uniform marching in wave after wave, on their way to the Ferrell Center to pay their last respects.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING OF ORDER)
GOODWYN: A long line of bagpipers and drummers strode through a soft spring sun.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPES)
GOODWYN: The most moving moments of the memorial were the tributes from the families. Twenty-nine-year-old fireman Cyrus Reed died that day. In a quiet but steady voice, Bryce Reed told the story of his little brother taking cans of cheese into the backyard and shooting at them with a BB gun to instigate a spectacular display of flying whiz.
BRYCE REED: Picture, if you will, waking up, you know, in the morning to finding a 15-foot-diameter swath of compressed dairy products thrown all over the backyard, fence, chairs, windows and sometimes the dog.
REED: When confronted, a big grin would come across his face and he would giggle and then proceed to plead his case and say, you don't understand; it was like 15 feet in the air and it spun and it was so cool.
REED: Yeah. And I'm going to miss that.
GOODWYN: To give a sense of 12 men's lives to an arena full of mostly strangers takes a while, and the memorial lasted two and a half hours. But the gathered came away with a powerful and intimate understanding of just who and what had been lost on that terrible Wednesday evening at the fertilizer plant.
REED: In closing, I would like to say that Cyrus always hated the term hero. He and I shared the belief that heroes are persons who are etched in marble and that a hero is a sacred and solemn term reserved for only those who pay the ultimate price when others would falter or run. My brother would disagree, but I firmly believe that all privy to this incident can attest that my brother and all those who lay with him are heroes now and forever.
GOODWYN: President Obama understood and picked up that theme, that the men who died were everyman, all of us.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The call went out to volunteers, not professionals, people who just love to serve, people who want to help their neighbors. A call went out to farmers and car salesmen and welders and funeral home directors, the city secretary and the mayor.
GOODWYN: The president then spoke to the 12 men who lay before him draped in red, white and blue.
OBAMA: And when you got to the scene, you forgot fear and you fought that blaze as hard as you could, knowing the danger, buying time so others could escape. And then, about 20 minutes after the first alarm, the earth shook and the sky went dark - and West changed forever.
GOODWYN: Left unsaid, understandably, was the fact that the 12 men who lost their lives should not have come that close to a raging inferno in a plant packed with tens of thousands of pounds of ammonium nitrate. But only a captain from Dallas, a paid firefighter with 31 years of experience, truly understood what they were up against. Captain Kenneth Harris was visiting in West when he heard and rushed to help. Upon seeing the fertilizer plant ferociously ablaze, Harris jumped out of the pickup and ordered his friend to turn around and drive as fast and as far away as he could. In doing so, Harris likely saved his friend's life, but his instinct to help cost him his. Without the kind of training and experiential knowledge Captain Harris brought to the scene, the volunteer firefighters did what they knew how, they saw a big fire and in the last moments of their lives bravely, selflessly engaged it in battle.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Waco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.