UMs get, give help in hard-hit West, Texas

The Rev. Jimmy Sansom apologized for his inability to recall exactly where he went first on the day after a fertilizer plant explosion brought death and widespread destruction to his small town of West, Texas.

“I can’t remember if I went up to the command post,” he said in a phone interview more than a week after the April 17 disaster. “I think I did. My mind’s just frazzled right now.”

Mr. Sansom, pastor of West United Methodist Church and nearby Wesley Chapel UMC, has been going hard ever since the explosion, which claimed 15 lives and damaged hundreds of homes.

Rev. Jimmy Sansom

He’s answered a rushing stream of phone calls, text messages, Facebook messages and emails, dealing with everything from trying to find missing church members to providing the Red Cross with temporary office space in the West UMC basement to working with UMC officials on how the denomination can best help.

Despite all the trouble Mr. Sansom has seen, and despite his fatigue, he’s grateful.

“In the midst of death and tragedy, there were blessings,” he said. “It could have been so much worse.”

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co., still under investigation, occurred at 7:51 p.m., killing 12 first responders who had come to put out a fire at the plant, and three others.

West—just north of Waco and about 75 miles south of Dallas—is a close-knit farming community of about 2,800 people, most of them Catholic, and many of Czech heritage.

The days since the explosion have brought funerals, a memorial service in Waco attended by President Obama, and an ongoing, often agonizing, process of assessing property damage.

Authorities have divided the 350 homes nearest the explosion into three zones, with Zone Three being the hardest hit. Some 70 homes there were destroyed, with another 85 declared unsafe and requiring extensive restoration, the Dallas Morning News reported.

The explosion occurred well across town from West UMC. But the force broke seven church windows and knocked tile out of the ceiling.

“None of the stained glass received breakage. They may have been bowed a little bit,” Mr. Sansom said. “The church came through it structurally.”

West UMC, which usually has from 50 to 70 in Sunday worship, was a couple of days accounting for all its members. None had been killed, and the same was true for Wesley Chapel UMC, about 11 miles away in Gholson.

“Some people received scratches and had to go to the doctor to get shards of glass taken out of them, but nothing real serious,” Mr. Sansom said.

But there are first-responders in West UMC who lost colleagues, and given the size and cohesiveness of the town, everyone knows at least some of those killed.

West United Methodist Church offered its fellowship hall to the Red Cross in the days after the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion. PHOTOS COURTESY CENTRAL TEXAS CONFERENCE

Seven families within West UMC have suffered extensive damage to their homes, as did one person in Wesley Chapel UMC, Mr. Sansom said.

He’s among many who have contemplated how many people might have been hurt, had the blast come earlier in the day.

“School wasn’t in session, which was a blessing, because otherwise we would have had three or four hundred casualties,” he said, referring to West Intermediate School’s location near the fertilizer plant.

The Red Cross asked for and received permission to use the fellowship hall of West UMC as a processing center. The church was glad to make that space available free of charge, Mr. Sansom said.

While he has been busy checking on church members—and leading them in an emotional service the Sunday after the blast—the Rev. Laraine Waughtal, disaster relief coordinator of the Central Texas Conference, has been in charge of the UMC response.

Ms. Waughtal was a pastor in Abbott, Texas, a few miles from West, in the late 1990s, and knew the area well. She arrived in West the day after the explosion.

“I sat down with [Mr. Sansom], to help him go through the process of how to get in contact with all his members,” she said. “Of course, church members were coming in, and I was getting to meet them.”

There were plenty of hugs and expressions of support to go around before and after worship at West UMC on the Sunday after the blast. PHOTO COURTESY CENTRAL TEXAS CONFERENCE

Ms. Waughtal said she has attended numerous meetings with local officials and other relief groups. Her focus lately has been lining up early response teams from within the Central Texas Conference.

“The early response teams will strictly be debris removal, cleanup, securing the homes and getting ready for the long-term recovery,” she said.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has provided $10,000 for West relief efforts, and will be sending cleanup kits as needed, said Cathy Earl, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response.

Some United Methodist churches, such as Christ UMC in Farmers Branch, Texas, have taken up offerings for West UMC. Bishop Mike Lowry of the Central Texas Conference has made a special appeal to conference churches for relief funds, while also encouraging contributions through UMCOR.

“We are not prepared to release how much we have received to date,” Vance Morton, director of communications for the Central Texas Conference, said of the bishop’s appeal. “We can tell you that we have received donations ranging from $1 to $10,000—from individuals, churches and organizations—both from within the conference and from across the state, country and world.”

Mr. Morton added: “One sizable donation came from a church down on the Texas coast who stated in the letter that accompanied it that they remembered the generosity of our conference during their recovery from Hurricane Ike and felt called to respond in kind—to reaffirm the connection that Christians share.”

How to Help

Donations to help survivors of this and other disasters, payable to “Advance GCFA” and marked in the memo line for “U.S. Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670,” can be left in church offering plates or sent to: Advance GCFA, PO Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068. Contributions are also accepted online at or by phone at (888) 252-6174.

Bishop Lowry has visited West, going with Mr. Sansom to visit UM families whose homes were badly damaged.

Mr. Sansom said the town has been nearly overwhelmed by contributions from a wide range of groups and individuals. His wife, Shannon, found herself sorting donated goods with fellow Protestants, but also with Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs.

“They were all working together,” he said. “The love of God has been very much present during such times.”

Mr. Sansom acknowledged dealing with a peculiar form of survivor’s guilt. Not only was he not hurt, he was at a Dallas Mavericks game with his son, Jeff, when the blast occurred.

Though he left for West as soon as he got the call from his wife, and was up until 2:30 a.m. trying to help in the chaotic aftermath, he still blamed himself for being away from town, at an entertainment venue, when disaster struck.

“I had a colleague call me while I was coming back, and he said I just need to calm down and be there for everybody else. I can now see that God’s hands were involved and that I wasn’t there during the blast so that I could be freed up to minister to others … I feel a whole lot better now.”



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Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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