Help, prayers pour into West after explosion
By Shelley Metcalf
Catholic Spirit Staff
The small town of West, which sits at the northern edge of the Austin Diocese, has been flooded with donations, disaster response teams, volunteers, media and, perhaps most importantly, prayers since an explosion at a fertilizer plant on the evening of April 17.
The explosion killed 14 people and destroyed at least 140 homes within several blocks of the fertilizer plant. Many of the dead were volunteer fire department members and EMS workers, as well as parishioners of St. Mary, Church of the Assumption Parish in West.
Father Ed Karasek said the phone had not stopped ringing at the parish, where he has been pastor for nearly 25 years. The parish, which also has a Catholic school, is about a mile from the fertilizer plant and did suffer some cosmetic damage from the explosion.
Father Karasek said he had talked to people from all over the world in the days since the tragedy.
"I have answered so many questions, but everyone is praying for us," he said. The diocese received a fax from Pope Francis the morning after the explosion, as well as various letters from Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans and Bishop Wm. Michael Mulvey of Corpus Christi. In recognition of the town’s Czech roots, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Prague also sent a letter to the parish.
The letter from the Vatican stated, "Saddened by the news of the destruction caused by the explosion in West, the Holy Father asks you kindly to convey his heartfelt condolences to the civil authorities and the afflicted families. He prays for the eternal rest of the victims and implores God’s blessings of consolation and peace upon those who mourn and all who generously aid in the continuing work of relief."
On April 19, Bishop Joe Vásquez visited Assumption Parish for an Interfaith Service of Remembrance for those who died. During the service, local Christian pastors offered their reflections and their support for the victims of the tragedy.
"This community has experienced a tragic event that has altered many lives. We mourn the loss of your loved ones and friends and we continue to pray for the injured," the bishop said to the crowded church.
"What we have witnessed in these days are acts of self sacrifice and compassion," he said. "In moments such as these we see the best of what makes us human, for these acts of sacrifice and compassion are reflections of our God who is real and present in each of us."
After the service concluded, the church leaders gave blessings and warm embraces to family members and first responders.
"It was so touching for me to be with the people of West during this sad time," Bishop Vásquez commented after the service.
Ericka Sammon, the principal of St. Mary’s Catholic School in West, said the outpouring of man power and resources the town has witnessed has been amazing. She knows of 10 families from the school who have lost their homes.
"We have had people from Dallas and from Austin who just got in their cars and drove to help," she said. "They knocked on our door and asked, ‘What can we do?’"
Sammon said the town has been blessed with large amounts of donations of household goods and clothing.
"The particular need we have right now at the school is for monetary donations for the families who have lost their homes," she said. "We want to help them
with tuition and lunch fees and help them get back to normal."
Providence Hospital in Waco, a member of Ascension Health, the nation’s largest Catholic health system in the U.S., was where many of the injured were brought for care on the night of the blast.
"It was a miraculous coming together of staff, and within minutes of the first calls coming in, we were ready to go as a team," said Brett Esrock, the president of the hospital, which treated many of the injured from a West nursing home that crumbled from the impact of the explosion.
Peggy Pustejovsky, a parishioner of Assumption Parish and a radiologist at Providence, was at her home about three miles outside of West when the explosion occurred.
"I heard a big boom and the lights flickered and when I looked toward town there was huge mushroom cloud," Pustejovsky said. She immediately headed to town to help. The first place she stopped was the nursing home, where her mother-in-law resides.
"There were so many people, young and old, who were helping," she said. "We were lifting people in wheelchairs up and over debris. We knocked out what was left of the windows to lift people out on mattresses and get them out of the rubble."
As she was helping, she received the "code green" from Providence asking all available hospital personnel to come to the hospital. She said she knew she could not leave what she was doing, but heard stories the next day of how all of the hospital staff was lined up to help when the busses started rolling in with injured patients.
For the most part, Providence treated those with non-life-threatening injuries. Bishop Vásquez visited with two West patients on April 19; both patients were expected to be released shortly, according to their families.
The bishop returned to West on April 21 to celebrate Mass at Assumption Parish. The church was full and more than 110 Knights of Columbus from across Central Texas formed an honor guard during the Mass. At least two of the first responders killed by the blast were members of the Knights of Columbus.
The town of West has a population of about 2,800 and Assumption Parish has about 1,275 families. The parish is 120 years old and has a rich Czech heritage thanks to the Moravian and German immigrants who settled in the town in the 1870s.
The Austin Diocese asked all parishes to take up a special collection for the people of West on the weekend of April 20-21. The diocese, through the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Charities of Central Texas, will assist the town with long-term case management needs, including the distribution of furniture and household goods when homes are rebuilt, and counseling services for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.