Hundreds attend funeral for Texas firefighter killed in blast
WEST, Texas, April 24
WEST, Texas, April 24 (Reuters) - Hundreds of firefighters and a drum and pipe band joined residents of a Texas town on Wednesday to honor a firefighter who died one week ago in an explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed 13 others and injured some 200.
Authorities said on Wednesday they have not determined the cause of the blast at the West Fertilizer Co in the town of West, a Czech-American community between Austin and Dallas.
A fire initially broke out at the plant followed by the fiery explosion approximately 22 minutes later, officials said. The focus of the investigation is on learning where the fire started in order to determine what caused the larger blast.
"The main focus in the investigation is the fire," said Robert Champion, special agent in charge of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), from the Dallas field office.
The plant stored and mixed fertilizer for local farmers, including dangerous anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate.
Most of those killed were first responders who were battling the blaze, so investigators are looking where charred fire trucks are located, as well as a large crater, for clues.
Kenneth "Luckey" Harris, Jr., 52, a Dallas firefighter who lived in West, was among 11 first responders and three others killed when the plant exploded, injuring about 200 people. He was off-duty at the time.
Firefighters from departments across Texas - most in formal dress uniforms - packed into the St. Mary's Catholic Church of the Assumption and an overflow area outside, where mourners included horseback riders in chaps toting U.S. and Texas flags and leather-clad members of several motorcycle clubs.
In his eulogy, Dallas Fire Chief Louie Bright paid tribute to Harris' leadership, dedication and courage, noting that in the course of their careers, firefighters face situations that test whether the "job is just a paycheck or ... a passion."
"On April 17, Captain Kenneth Harris demonstrated a passion not only for his profession but also for his community ... every single time the call for service rang out he was right there to give maximum effort," he said.
The toll on first responders in the West blast is the highest in one single incident in the state since a disaster in Texas City in 1947, the Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force has said. In that incident, a cargo ship packed with fertilizer exploded, killing more than 500 people, among them more than two dozen local volunteer firefighters.
President Barack Obama plans to attend a memorial service on Thursday for victims of the West explosion, the White House said. The service will be held at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
The government of the Czech Republic said on Wednesday it would send approximately $200,000 in aid to the town founded by Czech immigrants in the 19th century and known for its bakeries selling Czech pastries.
Czech-Americans also have organized a fundraising campaign to offer disaster relief to the town of about 2,700 people, the Czech Embassy in Washington said. (Reporting by Tim Gaynor and Corrie MacLaggan; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Eric Beech)
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