People in the town of West, Texas, are trying to recover from a massive blast at a fertilizer plant Wednesday that resulted in fatalities, scores of injuries and heavy damage to homes and buildings in the surrounding area, and churches are doing their part to help.
Firefighters responded around 6:30 p.m. April 17 to battle a fire at the plant that later resulted in a huge explosion. The deadly blast that rocked the town occurred around 7:50 p.m. (CST), just two days after multiple bombs detonated at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 100.
West, a town with a population of nearly 2,700 people, is located in the north-central Texas county of McLennan, 20 miles north of Waco and 120 miles north of the capital city of Austin. It is 75 miles south of Dallas.
Emergency officials evacuated the area surrounding the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. located on Jerry Mashek Drive, east of Interstate 35. A nearby apartment building was damaged heavily by the blast, which led to the evacuation of 133 residents from a nearby nursing home. A middle school also is located close to the fertilizer plant.
“A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives,” President Obama said in a statement, adding that those affected “will have the support of the American people.”
According to reports from CNN, the number of people killed remains unclear. Police estimate the deaths of five to 15, and more than 160 people were injured. Several firefighters also were missing or unaccounted for, according to emergency officials.
Already, churches in the area and across the country have jumped into action to provide disaster relief.
Laurie Kraus, coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), said officials with the Presbyterian Church (USA) have been in contact with Janet Devries, executive presbyter of Irving, Texas-based Grace Presbytery about needs in the area.
“We are sending a resource team in support of the local congregations in the area,” said Kraus, who also noted PDA has a team providing assistance to spiritual leaders in Boston in the wake of Monday’s bombings. “We have word that Presbyterians may be among some of those missing, and we want to provide support to the local church leadership.”
Kraus said there were at least three PCUSA congregations in the immediate area: First Presbyterian Hillsboro, First Presbyterian Waco and First Presbyterian Kaufman.
“It’s been a bad week,” she said, referring to Wednesday’s explosion that came on the heels of Monday’s tragedy in Boston. “We want to make sure we equip the local Presbyterian congregations as they help lead the healing in the community.”
While access to the area around the plant explosion in West has been limited primarily to rescue personnel, local congregations already have started relief efforts of their own. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, part of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) denomination, is one of those.
Slim Thompson, associate pastor of Redeemer, said a churchwide mission program already scheduled for next week will focus its efforts on cleaning rubble and debris from the explosion along with meeting any other needs in the area.
Thompson added that churches and organizations wanting to begin immediate relief efforts have been encouraged to donate blood, collect canned goods and basic household items to assist many people who suffered great losses as a result of the explosion and its aftermath.
“It’s a lot like (Hurricane) Katrina (in 2005) when people lost so much,” he said. “We’ve got to give them something to live off of right now.”
Countless fire, rescue and law enforcement units were involved in the search for survivors that took place Wednesday and continued Thursday, picking their way through the debris that still poses dangers for the investigators as they comb through the rubble.
George Smith, the emergency management system director for the town, said the death toll could swell as rescue personnel begin to sift through the piles of debris that once served as the fertilizer plant to continue rescue operations and investigate the cause of the massive explosion.
Most of the injuries were a result of the blast, which registered a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, rocking homes as far as 50 miles away. Approximately 60 homes within a five-block radius of the plant were damaged from the blast.
The Dallas Morning News reported that officials with the fertilizer company indicated 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia were at the facility. Anhydrous ammonia is a gas used to make fertilizer and can cause severe burns if it combines with water in the body. Exposure to high concentrations can lead to death.
Officials believe there is no “chemical escape” that is “out of control.”
Health officials reported those hurt had orthopedic injuries, large wounds, lacerations and cuts more than any ailments associated with inhalation of airborne toxins.
Debby Marak told The Associated Press that she saw smoke coming from the area when she finished teaching a religion class and was told to leave, that the plant may explode. She likened the situation to being in a tornado, noting that debris was flying around, and her car windshield was blown out.
“It was like the whole earth shook,” she said, noting she observed a huge fireball that rose like a “mushroom cloud.”
In the face of such tragedy, churches are trying to be a support system, for all those affected by the terrible incident, working to meet both physical and spiritual needs.
“I think our purpose is to be the anchor and remind people of a deeper love in the midst of the darkness,” Thompson said. “We have to let people know that in the face of such a trying time we cling to a greater hope. Our job is to encourage these people to be strong in this difficult time. We’ll try to embody Christ’s love.
“We’re still pilgrims on this earth, and Christ will take care of us.”
Kraus added, “We must share the love of Christ. Ours is a ministry of presence and support. We need to be the face of Christ in the midst of chaos.”