WEST—Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers, including SBTC volunteers and chaplains, were among those allowed to accompany residents returning to their homes Saturday (April 27) into the area of the town of West most heavily devastated by the deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant on April 17.
These Southern Baptist volunteers are known as the men and women in the yellow hats.
“Yellow caps, yellow hats, yellow shirts, that’s us,” said Darryl Cason of the characteristic garb of Southern Baptist disaster relief workers. Cason has served as SBTC incident commander since April 18, rotating that duty with others, including Mike Jansen and Scottie Stice.
The yellow hats, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross were the only three relief groups allowed unlimited access to what was deemed “Zone 3”—the most devastated area—over the weekend, Cason said.
“On Saturday morning we arrived at Zone 3 at 6 a.m. Authorities were supposed to escort us in. Instead, when we arrived, officials told us to go on in and do our thing. So we did our thing,” Cason said.
Southern Baptist volunteers and chaplains walked through Zone 3, checked with homeowners, checked on the status of work orders and helped people retrieve things from their homes.
A group from West Side Baptist Church of Atlanta, Texas, led by Pastor Jim Howard, cleared out a woman’s home where sheetrock was crumbling. They also helped her get her car out of the garage.
Meanwhile, SBTC chaplains and workers ministered in practical and spiritual ways.
“Many of the folks, when we start talking to them, start crying,” Cason said. “Then you pray with them and try to console them.”
“One lady, who was French and who had married and come to West, did arts and crafts. When workers brought out some of her crafts, she broke down. I comforted her and prayed with her. We helped her husband get his car out of the garage too,” said Cason, describing a typical encounter.
Other residents were simply prayed for, Cason said.
Much of the work in Zone 3 has involved helping retrieve homeowners’ prized possessions.
Cason said SBTC chaplains and other Southern Baptist volunteers have also had long conversations with police and emergency workers. “They need comforting too,” Cason said.
The fatality count for the West disaster remains at 15, most of whom were first responders.
The total could have been much higher. The fact that so many people had gone outside to watch the fire may have spared many lives, Cason said.
“When the roofs fell in, the people were outside. We have talked to a number of people who were outside. They were glad they were when they saw the inside of their homes,” he added.
One example of the devastation: “You can stand in front of the apartment complex [adjacent to the blast site] and see through to the back of almost every apartment,” Cason said.
First Baptist Church of Gholson was continuing to house SBTC chaplains and volunteers, generously providing meals and places to sleep after long days.
Southern Baptist volunteers joined in worship Sunday (April 28) at First Baptist Church of West, whose pastor, John Crowder, lost his home in the explosion. Last Sunday, the congregation worshiped in a hayfield.
“The church was full,” Cason said. “Several yellow shirts were there. The Texas Baptist Men [of the Baptist General Convention of Texas] cooked a meal and served the church members and others, probably 200-300, including several commanding officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety.”
Among those served was Captain Jim Smith, the DPS officer in charge of operations in West. Motorcycle policemen and game wardens stopped to eat also.
“We’ve had a good relationship with the authorities here,” said Cason, who noted that SBTC volunteers had moved the shower unit from the fairgrounds to the emergency operations center now located at West High School at the request of state emergency management.
The shower unit will be used by forest service workers and other emergency workers. The SBTC cleans and maintains it.
Also, the SBTC laundry unit continues to do service for displaced families at the Best Western hotel.
“The laundry unit has washed and dried over 150 loads of laundry,” said Jim Richardson, SBTC Disaster Relief director. Richardson also noted that churches across the convention provided vans and buses to transport the families of fallen firefighters to the memorial service at Baylor University’s Ferrell Center.
The SBTC feeding unit from Pflugerville was brought to the Baylor campus where volunteers, including Red Cross volunteers, local citizens and Baylor students, prepared and served thousands of breakfasts and snack lunches to those attending the memorial, Richardson said.
Field ministry strategist Ted Elmore represented the SBTC at Thursday’s three-hour memorial service, with Elmore calling it “impressive” and “emotional.”
President Obama and Gov. Rick Perry spoke, with the president speaking from Psalm 66:10-12.
Each family provided video recorded comments and photos of their deceased loved ones. “The Scripture on the screen was John 15:13, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,’” Elmore said.
The SBTC will continue to deploy disaster relief workers, chaplains, the shower unit and laundry unit as long as necessary, Richardson said.
“The West community leadership has requested no further donations of water and clothes. If churches want to help, financial contributions are encouraged,” Richardson said.