(ABPNews)–Local, regional and state church groups responded April 18 to the deadly fertilizer explosion that leveled portions of West, Texas, on Wednesday night.
Baptist pastors and secretaries in congregations dotting the map around the central Texas city reported various levels of church-based response, from opening facilities as shelters to making sandwiches and snacks for police, fire and medical personnel. The Baptist General Convention of Texas responded with chaplains and is ready to provide other disaster-relief services when requested by authorities.
The main thing West’s mayor has requested from the community so far is prayer – and local Christians say they are being provided. “We are definitely doing that,” said Vernon Martindale, senior pastor of Abbott Baptist Church, located in the town of the same name 7 miles north of West. West is located about 20 miles north of Waco.
Martindale said his congregation was just concluding Wednesday night services when the church lost power. A few minutes later the building was rocked by the sound of an explosion. The U.S. Geological Survey has reported the 8 p.m. blast registered on censors as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake.
“We walked outside and saw this huge column of smoke, so we knew something drastic had happened,” Martindale said.
Drastic and deadly
WFAA-TV in Dallas/Fort Worth reported as many as 15 dead and 160 injured. Other reports say it was 180 who were sent to area hospitals for treatment.
“There is a significant area around the fertilizer plant that has been destroyed,” police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton told the television station. “Homes have been destroyed. Homes have been flattened. Part of that community is gone.”
On its Facebook page, the Alpine EMS-West, Texas, Ambulance Service mourned “the loss of 6 firefighters, 2 EMS personnel and 1 police officer” in the explosion at West Fertilizer Co.
For Martindale and his flock, like others in the region, the explosion is something they felt personally as well as physically.
Martindale said most people in the area have friends and family – or work – in neighboring towns, including West. That makes the projected death toll and injury reports devastating well beyond the community. Two volunteer firefighters from Abbott, who responded to the fire preceding the blast, had not been found as of 10 a.m. Thursday, he added.
First Baptist Church damaged
First Baptist Church in West was damaged in the blast and its pastor, John Crowder, lost his home. But neither Crowder nor his family was there at the time.
Richard Mangum, Texas Baptists’ congregational strategist, said a team is being sent to support Crowder and his congregation.
“If it were practical, I know many of our congregations, pastors, ministers and lay people would be with John and his family right now,” said Chris Liebrum, disaster-recovery coordinator for Texas Baptists. “We are going down on behalf of more than 5,000 churches to stand with John in this trying time.”
A Facebook page titled “Prayers for West” has been created for blast victims. It features prayers, availability of resources and even residents searching for pets lost in the chaos. Baylor University students held a prayer vigil late Friday night.
Another lending support is Pastor Jack Bodenhamer of First Baptist Church of Elm Mott, a small town located about 9 miles south of West. Bodenhamer is a Elm Mott volunteer fighter and was one of the first on the scene Wednesday night, according to Rochelle, the church secretary who provided only her first name.
From bad to worse
“It was bad and it only went from bad to worse,” she said, relaying his account. “It was bad, but thank God for the community.”
That response includes apartment complexes and hotels that are making space available for survivors. Members of First Baptist Elm Mott are preparing supplies to be sent to the West community center. “People are jumping to the plate to help,” she said.
First Baptist Church in Lott has opened its facility to accept anyone made homeless by the blast, said Hillary James, wife of Pastor Stephen James. No one was sheltering there as of Thursday afternoon. She said the sanctuary will be opened Thursday afternoon and evening for anyone who wants to come in for prayer.
James said her husband left the house at 6 a.m. Thursday to make hospital visits, including checking in with blast victims who are relatives of church members. “He will be there quite a while,” she said.
— With additional reporting by John Hall of Texas Baptist communications.