SC firefighters help plan memorial service for West, TX responders

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - President Barack Obama and the nation will honor the lives of more than 10 fallen firefighters on Thursday who were killed during an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas last week.

The tragedy is all too familiar for South Carolina firefighters who were called to the small town to help plan the massive memorial service.

Prior to the tragedy in West, firefighters say the largest loss of life for first responders since September 11th was the Charleston Nine.

That fire in June of 2007 left the state in shock and fellow firefighters planning funerals for nine of their own. Because of that, the South Carolina Firefighters' Association was called on for guidance and strength in the wake of this terrible loss.

"Saturday we got a call from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation," said Jason Pope, Deputy Director of the South Carolina Firefighters' Association.

Pope says it was the next day three of his fellow colleagues were on their way to West, Texas. "Their charge is to help them plan this memorial service, but also to kind of serve as counselors and coaches through this because they've done this through their experience," said Pope.

Painful memories of the morning of June 18th, 2007 now serve as a platform for firefighter and president of the association, Billy Gibson. "When the Charleston 9 tragedy happened, I woke up that morning and was getting ready to go to work and saw the news on the TV and my first reaction was, 'That couldn't happen here in South Carolina, that doesn't happen here'," said Gibson on a phone call from West. "My thoughts were the men who responded and the folks of West and the surrounding area probably felt the same way thinking, 'How could that happen here?'"

Gibson and two other colleagues, Joe Palmer and Zorrina Harmon, have come alongside the Texas line of duty death task force to plan this service for the 12 fallen heroes, which includes 10 volunteer firefighters and two honorary."As you can imagine, trying to organize a memorial service for one person given a tragic circumstance would be a huge undertaking," said Gibson. "Our role has been much more of a support, consulting…a source for them to bounce ideas off of."

Gibson adds the town's strength in the face of tragedy has served as a reminder of their call of duty. "You realize just how fragile life can be," said Gibson. "Bad things happen and we've got to be prepared but also remember that we have a purpose."

Today's service will start at 2pm Central time and will be held in Waco at Baylor University. All 14 people killed in the blast will be remembered, and President Obama and Texas Governor Rick Perry are expected to attend.

Our firefighters will head home this Saturday.

In all 14 people were killed and 200 were injured in last week's explosion.