WEST -- Media outlets across the nation have told the world how an explosion at a fertilizer plant rocked this small Central Texas town.
But that's not where the city's story ends. Thanks to Texas Baptists, in some ways that's where the story begins. The convention has partnered with First Baptist Church in West to help with recovery efforts since the blast. On June 15-22, hundreds of volunteers from across the state, armed with shovels and servant hearts, partnered for Loving West -- a week-long recovery effort coordinated by Texas Baptists Disaster Recovery.
"One of the greatest ways God is blessing us is by these people sitting in these pews right now," said John Crowder, pastor of First Baptist Church in West, as volunteers sat in the sanctuary for the daily morning announcements and safety orientation.
Crews battled rain and heat throughout the week. Most worked from 8:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Teams of volunteers chose projects of a board each morning ranging from construction to plumbing to yard work and sweeping. Workers found ideal matches for their skills.
"The Lord just orchestrates so perfectly who goes to each job," said Marla Bearden, Texas Baptists' disaster recovery specialist.
While volunteers came from all over the state, Bearden said a majority came from surrounding communities such as Waco.
"They want to help their fellow county citizens," she said. "They say, 'West is our people.'"
The largest clean-up job was at an apartment complex across the railroad tracks from the fertilizer plant. It was bulldozed the previous week. Crews were instructed to separate debris and collect valuable items.
As the week progressed, clothing and backpacks lined the fence surrounding the apartment complex. In between sorrowful tears from the tragedy were joyful tears as owners were reunited with sentimental items they never expected to see again.
"There's story after story of how God is on the move here," said Vaughn Managan, long-term recovery volunteer coordinator working with Texas Baptists. "I've cried here every day because of what the Lord is doing."
Texas Baptist Men provided the workers' breakfast, lunch and dinner in the First Baptist in West fellowship hall.
Managan encouraged Loving West volunteers to pray for homeowners as they headed out to worksites. Each person who was in or near West on April 17, the day of the explosion, had a "mind-blowing story of where they were and what they were doing," he said.
West resident Roseann Chudej was outside a neighbor's house that day when "fiery fingers" raced across the yard as she tried to cover her ears from the "shrill noise."
Rebecca Word drove to her parents' West residence that night where she found them and her 6-year-old son buried in debris with cuts from glass. Her parents both went blind, and her son cannot hear out of one ear.
While the city of West has a long way to go from full recovery, Mayor Tommy Muska said the devastation could have been much worse, and they are grateful God was there on April 17.
"There is no doubt in my mind," he said, "with the debris that flew all over this town, that God protected these people."
With an anticipated three-five year recovery process, West is moving forward with the help volunteers provided through Loving West.
West Long Term Recovery Center, located in downtown West, partnered with the event to facilitate resources for the week.
"This is our 9-11, our disaster," said Jamie Allnutt, event and corporate relations coordinator. "We've been overwhelmed and blessed with the amount of help."
By Friday, 231 jobs were completed through Loving West, and the apartment complex was nearly a clean concrete slab.
"We're beginning to see the dawn," Pastor Crowder said. "The sun is starting to rise."
Texas Baptists Disaster Recovery will be hosting future "Loving your city" events, including Moore, Okla. in late summer. To keep up with disaster news and upcoming events, go to www.texasbaptists.org/disaster.
Written by Leah Allen