By Tim Gaynor
WACO, Texas (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will assume a familiar role consoling family and friends of disaster victims on Thursday when he speaks at a Texas memorial for firefighters killed in a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant.
Just a week after he traveled to Boston following the Marathon bombing that killed three people, he will speak at a memorial on the campus of Baylor University in Waco to honor the 11 first responders who died in the blast.
Organizers expect thousands of first responders to attend the service at a college basketball arena that seats more than 10,000 people. A procession of firefighters and some 300 fire trucks from across the country will be held before the service.
The April 17 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co plant obliterated a residential section of the small Czech-American town of West, Texas, 20 miles from Waco. It killed 14 people and injured some 200.
The town of 2,700 people had 33 volunteer fireman. Five died when they responded to a fire alarm, and the plant exploded 20 minutes later. Four paramedics from nearby towns who were also firefighters, and were attending a class in West on the night of the disaster, rushed to the scene and were killed.
The other two casualties among first responders were an off-duty Dallas fireman who lived in West and a local welder who went to the plant to help.
The explosion, which had the force of a small earthquake, left a huge crater in the ground at the plant.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the blast, although they suspect an industrial accident stemming from fertilizer stored on the premises.
In addition to Obama, speakers will include Texas Governor Rick Perry and Baylor University President Kenneth Starr, best known for his investigation of the sex scandal involving then President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky during the 1990s.
The explosion occurred two days before the 20th anniversary of a huge fire that destroyed the compound of the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, ending a standoff with federal agents. The sect's leader, David Koresh, and dozens of his followers were killed and the government was accused of heavy-handed action in the tragedy.
Investigators of the fertilizer plant blast have not ruled out arson, but have said there is no indication of foul play.
(Writing by Greg McCune)
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