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Responding to tragedy in West, Texas

June 25, 2013

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Responding to tragedy in West, Texas

Shortly before 8 p.m. on the night of April 17, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas (about 15 miles north of the Baylor campus), killing a dozen first responders who were battling a blaze at the plant and devastating the entire community -- a tight-knit town of 2,800 that includes 43 Baylor faculty and staff members, 13 Baylor students and more than 250 Baylor alumni.

Members from all across the Baylor family immediately sprang into action. Students organized a midnight prayer gathering in front of Waco Hall that very night, drawing almost 100 people to pray for their neighbors to the north. In a matter of hours, the university rolled out a website (baylor.edu/relief) and Facebook group to share information on how Bears could help.

The university's human resources department personally called every faculty and staff member who might have been impacted by the tragedy in West. Student Life did the same for students who live in West, and the Baylor Alumni Network reached out to alumni in the area.

The next day, a Thursday, just happened to be Diadeloso, an annual day of outdoor fun for Baylor students. But instead of the usual activities, the day transformed into DiadelWest. The morning's field-day-type events were postponed, replaced with a prayer vigil in the Student Union Building; later in the day, when a limited schedule of Dia activities resumed, Baylor Chamber used the bear mascot trailer to collect water, blankets, etc. for the displaced from West, just one of many groups gathering aid around Waco.

Students, faculty and staff were urged to give blood at local collection centers (Carter Blood Care and Scott & White Blood Center), and lines at such locations stretched around the block as volunteers waited for hours to give. Many drove north to West to help sort the donations that poured in (work that would continue over the coming weeks and months).

The Diadeloso headliner concert featuring Five for Fighting was moved to the Ferrell Center and opened to the public; cash donations to support the relief effort were accepted, and $1 from every concessions sale went to a fund set up by Baylor to benefit the community of West.

Thanks to donations from almost 2,000 individuals, that fund has now topped $280,000, and contributions continue to come in. University officials made it easy for people to donate online and in person at locations such as the Robinson Tower cashier's office and the Baylor Bookstore.

Communications between Baylor and West officials are ongoing. As the community rebuilds, Baylor and West officials will continue to work together to determine the best plan for the fund. 

A week after the explosion, Baylor University was honored to provide the site for a memorial service honoring the 12 first responders who died battling the fire that led to the blast, organized by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Texas LODD Task Force.

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Following a processional down University Parks Drive that included 300-plus fire trucks from all over the country, a capacity crowd filled the Ferrell Center, including President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Texas Governor Rick Perry, 4,000 uniformed responders, and thousands of other citizens paying their respects from the West, Waco and Baylor communities and beyond.

Many more watched from other venues; on campus, in Waco Hall, the Bill Daniel Student Center and McLane Student Life Center, as well as at Baylor Ballpark, Getterman Stadium, and the Hurd Tennis Center, which were all opened and carried the broadcast for the overflow crowds.

Nearly 40 Baylor Air Force ROTC cadets and cadre participated in the memorial ceremony and procession, guarding caskets, seating guests, and assisting first responders with drill and ceremony.

Two Baylor nursing students and one recent graduate were on their way back from Waco to Dallas following a regular day of ROTC activities the night the plant exploded. The trio -- seniors Ali Nordlander and Ashlyn McNeely and alumna Quianna Samuels, BSN '12 -- had stopped at the popular Czech Stop in West for dinner just minutes before the blast.

Without any hesitation, they immediately ran more than a mile toward the mushroom cloud and were among the first responders to start pulling the elderly, many of them bedridden, from the nursing home that was devastated by the blast.

McNeely describes the first 45 minutes as complete chaos. But dressed in their ROTC fatigues, the students' presence commanded respect in the midst of chaos. Those able to help listened as the trio gave directions to transport the injured to safety, set up a triage area, and treated countless injuries.

For their efforts, Nordlander, McNeely and Samuels are being given the Air Force ROTC Gold Valor Award, the highest honor given to an AFROTC cadet. Nordlander and Samuels received their awards during their commissioning ceremony in May; McNeely will receive hers this fall.

The 12 fallen first responders were remembered by family and friends in a series of tribute videos played at the memorial in the Ferrell Center. The series of five-minute videos were produced in just two days by Baylor graduate Ben Ranzinger, BA '01, a West resident who knew most of the victims and their families.

"I was surprised at how much the victims' families held together," Ranzinger told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "They put on their strongest faces to get through the process. I mean, no one likes talking about these things, and especially with a camera stuck in their faces. I've been in the business 20 years and I wouldn't like it."

Dr. Jim Ellor, a professor in Baylor's School of Social Work, and Dr. Sara Dolan, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, put their Psycho-
Social-Spiritual Intervention Team (or PIT Crew, as they call it) to work almost immediately after the explosion. Comprised of Baylor psychology and social work faculty, students and alumni, the team has trained for emergency response scenarios since Hurricane Katrina.

As elderly nursing home residents were relocated to different facilities, social work responders were there ready to assist. Ellor tells a story of an elderly woman who was relocated, and facility employees assumed she was just in shock because she wouldn't respond to them when they spoke to her. He moved a little closer to her and realized she didn't have her hearing aids. Many of the elderly left so quickly that they didn't have their glasses, dentures, medications, hearing aids and other basics. He and other volunteers worked to meet such needs.

With a tragedy like this, many first responders have a difficult time dealing with the stress, chaos and even guilt from such an event; Ellor and Dolan were also there to support those heroes in this capacity. As the days turned into weeks, the team switched to long-term response, coordinating volunteer teams and providing licensed social workers (and those working toward licenses), clinical psychologists, counselors and case managers.

Cara Perkins hosts a weekly Internet radio show called "Healthy Now, Healthy Later," working to help people have healthy lives not only through food and fitness but also through volunteer work and doing things that are healthy for the mind.

"The cast and crew of my radio show went to West on Sunday, April 21, to help volunteer and interview folks in order to create a special tribute show for the City of West," she said. "We found so many Baylor students who had driven up to West just to help since they didn't have any plans that day.

"I began asking them if they were with an organization within Baylor, and all of them said, no, they just took it upon themselves to show up because it was the 'right thing to do.' We had the good fortune to interview several of them and, let's just say, I am convinced that we have a bright future!

"What an outstanding representation of Baylor University in a time of need. The university should be so proud."

Several years ago, Baylor School of Education Dean Jon Engelhardt challenged Waco-area school district superintendents to come together in taking leadership for Central Texas education. Today, this association of superintendents (representing 10 area school districts) meets monthly to continue fostering strong working relationships across the region.

Barely more than 12 hours after the explosion, this group of superintendents was already working with West ISD superintendent Marty Crawford (a 1996 Baylor graduate and former BU baseball star) to coordinate providing counselors for students, classroom facilities to replace those damaged by the blast, school breakfasts and lunches for students, etc.

By the next Monday morning, classrooms in the Waco area were prepared to host the West students as they returned to class with their usual teachers, complete with flowers on the teachers' desks and groups of local students waiting to welcome everyone from West that morning.

"No single ISD had the resources to pull this off," says Engelhardt. "Had the group not been developed beforehand -- an effort that was stimulated and cultivated by Baylor -- none of this could have happened. Instead, a major educational and community challenge became a non-problem and provided the children, at least, a small sense of normalcy during the school day."

Brandy Gonzales, BA '02, shared this note:

"I am a teacher in the Connally Independent School District. Last Friday, we were prepping one of our buildings in anticipation of the arrival of West ISD students. Many employees and students were scrubbing floors, walls, painting, landscaping, etc. At some point in the morning, four young men walked into the building -- all wearing Baylor shirts. They said they saw on Facebook that some work was being done out there and they didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to help. They stayed for several hours, painting and cleaning. I don't know their names; that wasn't important to them. They weren't in it for recognition. I am always proud to be a Baylor Bear, but after watching these young men who gave their time and energy on that long, difficult day, well, that made me even prouder."

Jesus Said Love, a "ministry to the marginalized" led by Baylor alums Brett, BA '98, and Emily, BA '99, Mills, adopted an extended family that lost everything in the explosion.

The woman, Brittany, saw her apartment destroyed, including any keepsakes she had from a baby that died a year ago. Her parents and aunt also lost their homes. Jesus Said Love raised more than $10,000 to not only replace many of their belongings (clothes, pots and pans, furniture, etc.), but also to get the family into a new apartment.

A group of Christian artists (including Baylor alums Laura Cooksey, BM '01, Jillian Edwards, BA '11, Shaun Groves, BM '97, and Robbie Seay) put together Songs for West, a 45-song compilation album made free for download but for which listeners could leave tips. At press time, the album had raised more than $7,000, all of which will go to Baylor's West relief fund.

Baylor softball loaned their indoor facilities to the West High School softball team in late April as the Lady Trojans prepared for district playoffs. The program also honored the people of West by turning a Baylor logo regularly displayed in center field into a hashtag -- "#BU4West" -- that was prominently visible during several of televised games, including one aired to a national audience on ESPN. The players wore t-shirts and red ribbons to recognize West, and in May, the program recognized some of the girls from West in a pre-game ceremony.

Eleven-year-old West resident Audrey Holloman, granddaughter of Baylor alumna and employee Carolyn Muska, BBA '90, MS '98, sent the card pictured above to Baylor in early May after her softball team was hosted at Getterman Stadium.

Muska lives in West, right next door to her son and daughter-in-law (Audrey's parents). Both families' homes were totaled by the explosion, but no family members were harmed. Despite the loss, Muska said Audrey was "so unbelievably excited" to have her team hosted by Baylor softball that she had to write the letter.

Former Baylor football great Phil Taylor, BSED '11, grew up in Maryland and now plays for the Cleveland Browns, but the two years he spent in Central Texas at Baylor left enough of an impact that he felt he needed to do something for the people of West. Through his foundation, Taylor is selling "We Are West TX" t-shirts (pictured) for $25, with proceeds to be distributed equally among the victims' families.

Data from previous blast tragedies, such as the Oklahoma bombing, shows that hearing damage is one of the most common problems. The Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders stepped forward to that need, sending out 1,500 parent consent forms to all of the children in West ISD, offering free hearing screenings to any child who might have been affected by the explosion.

CSD faculty and graduate students then went to West to perform hearing screening on more than 150 children whose parents were concerned. The Baylor Speech and Hearing Clinic also offered free full hearing tests to anyone from West concerned about their child's hearing.

Stephen Humenesky, the father of Baylor freshman Stephen III, shared this note the day after the memorial service:

"I am a retired NYC firefighter now living here in Texas. ... As a firefighter who worked at the attacks on the World Trade Center, I have seen and know how these disasters can affect people and communities. The accident in this small town will have much of the same effect on the people of West for the days and months ahead. Years will go by, and many will have little to comfort them except for the tribute that was held yesterday. You have done a wonderful thing for these people, and I wanted you to be fully aware of what I predict will be the one bright moment in these survivors' lives.

"As a side note, my son is enrolled in your university, and I must say I am very proud he is a Baylor Bear. After I saw the compassion and caring displayed yesterday, my pride swells to know he is part of this great family."

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