WACO, Texas — A somber President Barack Obama paid tribute on Thursday to firefighters killed in a spectacular explosion that devastated a small Texas town last week, praising their courage and vowing to help their community recover from a ‘‘time of unimaginable adversity.’’
‘‘We may not all live here in Texas,’’ Obama told a sports arena packed with more than 9,000 mourners at Baylor University here, ‘‘but we’re neighbors too. We’re Americans too, and we stand with you and we do not forget. We’ll be there even after the cameras leave and after the attention turns elsewhere.’’
The memorial service at the Ferrell Center honored 12 men who died last week in a wisp of a town called West about 20 miles south of here. The men killed included 10 firefighters who died in the explosion of a fertilizer plant, as well as two civilians who died responding to the scene and who were recognized as honorary firefighters. There were also at least two other civilian victims of the blast.
Lined up in front of the president were a dozen flag-draped coffins flanked by large photographs of those killed. A bell was rung for each of the victims as fellow firefighters saluted them. Obama and his wife, Michelle, both wiped away tears as bagpipes played ‘‘Amazing Grace.’’
A video tribute on a jumbo screen over the arena floor showed emotional widows and children, parents and siblings speaking about those they lost — including a practical joker, a karaoke singer and a man whose car had a Superman seal. There were stories of barbecues and hunting trips, alternately wrenching and full of humor.
One widow, Carmen Bridges, described how her husband, Morris, 41, was leaving to respond to the call when he stopped for a moment to pick up their 2-year-old child. ‘‘Daddy loves you, and I’ll be right back,’’ she recalled him saying.
‘‘And he didn’t come back,’’ Bridges said.
Investigators believe that the blast was set off by the accidental eruption of the same agricultural chemical that Timothy J. McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995: ammonium nitrate. Authorities have not determined what ignited the tons of ammonium nitrate kept at the plant. A fire had broken out shortly before the explosion.