By Megan Mertz
“I never thought when I left the house that morning that I’d never be able to go back,” said Evelyn Pareya, an LCMS Lutheran and one of the many residents of West, Texas, who lost their homes in the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company the evening of April 17.
The explosion, which reportedly left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep, killed 14 people and injured more than 200 others in the town of 2,800 residents. It also leveled many buildings along Reagan Street, including a school, a nursing home, an apartment complex and numerous homes.
More than two weeks later, Pareya’s house still testifies to the severity of the blast. Structural damage has made it unsafe to enter, although Pareya and her husband have reinforced some areas with two-by-fours to keep the ceiling from collapsing. Around the house, the ground is littered with twisted metal, pieces of drywall, broken glass and the family’s damaged belongings. Down the street, houses are boarded up and piles of debris have been left at the curb, awaiting pick up.
“It’s a total loss. It looks as though a bomb went off in it,” Pareya said of her home, which is located just across a small park from the fertilizer plant.
Pareya, a CPA, was working late April 17 when she says she heard “a loud explosion and the building shook” just before 8 p.m. Her sister, Betty Moss, whose house also was damaged in the explosion, credits Pareya’s “workaholic” tendencies with saving her life.
“If I had been home, I wouldn’t have survived,” Pareya said.
Both sisters are currently staying with family members.
The Rev. Matthew Canion, associate pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Waco, Texas, about 20 miles from West, serves as a chaplain for the state police. He was called to the explosion site shortly after the enormous blast occurred. Canion described the evening as both “terrifying and amazing.”
“When we got onsite, there were so many firetrucks. You could see the lights for blocks,” he recalled. “They had so many helicopters and people being rushed to the hospital. The triage area had to be evacuated and set up somewhere else.”
Three families from West, including Moss and Pareya, are members of St. Paul, Waco. Since there is no LCMS church in West, Canion and his congregation have organized efforts to provide relief to the victims. He also is working to enable area children to attend Camp Lonestar for a week this summer to give them and their parents a break. Members of St. Paul are making blankets and quilts and groups are organizing volunteer teams for relief in West.
“Now we have a chance to come in and not just be a presence but to meet needs,” Canion said. “I’ve already seen so many relief agencies pulling out, every single week. Where they are pulling out, there is going to be a need.”
Lutheran relief agencies also came to the aid of the community after the blast. Lutheran Church Charities brought five of their K-9 Comfort Dogs to West for nearly a week to visit area residents and schools. Lutheran Social Services of the South Inc. (LSS), based in Austin, Texas, continues to be involved in the community.
LSS, which is a member of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, was present at the assistance center established by relief agencies immediately following the disaster. During the initial phase, LSS Disaster Response case managers distributed $13,000 in emergency funds and counseled families about the next steps toward recovery, according to Mark Minick, senior vice-president for external relations at LSS.
“One of the biggest needs for the foreseeable future is the spiritual toll it will continue to take on families. The loss of life in a small community like this will leave scars for a long time,” Minick said. “We know from previous experience that being able to help people walk through that is an important part of the healing and recovery process.”
The Rev. John Fale, associate executive director of LCMS Mercy Operations, visited West April 30 and May 1 to discuss long-term recovery plans and distribute gift cards to residents who lost their houses and possessions.
“Residents are very aware that this explosion could have resulted in many more deaths, had it not been for the grace of God,” Fale said. “They also know that they are not yet able to fully comprehend how long it will take to rebuild their lives and homes. And they are very touched that even though there are no Lutheran congregations in West, the LCMS has been with them from the beginning to bring the love of Christ in the midst of pastoral conversations as well as tangible expressions of mercy.
“The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is responding primarily through the wonderful connections and relationships already established by Pastor Canion and the staff at Lutheran Social Services of the South to bring long-term relief to the needs that the people have here in West, Texas,” he continued.
To help those affected by disasters like the explosion in West, Texas:
- make an online gift at https://www.lcms.org/givenow/disaster.
- mail checks payable to “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” (with a memo line or note designating “LCMS Disaster Relief”) to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
- call toll-free 888-930-4438 (8:10 a.m. – 4:10 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday).
Megan Mertz is a staff writer with LCMS Communications.