Catholic communities band together in wake of West, Texas, tragedy

Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

April 19, 2013

A woman prays during an April 18 candlelight vigil at the Church of the Assumption in remembrance of those who lost their lives or were injured in the massive explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The explosion near Waco, killed as many as 15 and injured more than 160 others. (CNS photo/Jaime R. Carrero, Reuters)
A woman prays during an April 18 candlelight vigil at the Church of the Assumption in remembrance of those who lost their lives or were injured in the massive explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The explosion near Waco, killed as many as 15 and injured more than 160 others. (CNS photo/Jaime R. Carrero, Reuters)

WEST, TX − Father Ed Karasek was driving home from a meeting in Austin when reports of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, came across the radio. The tragedy’s human toll hit home quickly for the pastor of St. Mary the Assumption Church in West. One of the first responders killed in the magnitude 2.6 blast was the son of parish secretary Carolyn Pustejovsky. Joey Pustejovsky was a volunteer fireman and city secretary for the heavily Czech-Catholic community located 20 miles north of Waco off Interstate 35.

West is in the Diocese of Austin, but borders the Diocese of Fort Worth and shares a common heritage with nearby communities in the Fort Worth Diocese.

More than 160 others were injured in the industrial explosion that followed a 7:29 p.m. fire alarm at the plant where volatile ammonium nitrate was used to manufacture fertilizer. The death count ranged from 15 to 60 as rescuers combed through debris looking for victims.

“This is just devastating,” said Fr. Karasek who spent most of Thursday morning comforting grieving families. “We’ve lost parishioners and a lot of people lost homes. People are in shock.”

The explosion cut a six-block swath of destruction across the laid-back town of 2,800 best known for its Czech bakeries, kolaches, and annual Westfest heritage event. Stain glass windows inside St. Mary’s Church, located 10 blocks from the site of the explosion, were broken but there was no other damage to the sanctuary. Other churches in the northern part of the town were heavily impacted by the blast heard 45 miles away. Two public schools, a nursing home, and 50-unit apartment complex were reduced to rubble.

During a Mass celebrated the morning after the explosion, Fr. Karasek tried to encourage devastated parishioners.

“The Lord will see us through this,” said the pastor in his homily. “We’re all grieving but we can support each other.”

In the spirit of that message, St. Mary’s will host an interdenominational prayer service for the community at 6 p.m. April 19. Prayers and calls of concern continue to pour into the church office.

“We’ve gotten calls from Vatican Radio and Sky News,” Fr. Karasek added. “People from all over the country are offering their support and prayers and we really appreciate it.”

“It’s been a busy 18 hours for us,” admitted Deacon Denver Crawley, who serves several nearby parishes in the Fort Worth Diocese. “Two of our parishioners live inside the blast zone and we’ve been talking to them.”

Dcn. Crawley told the North Texas Catholic his friends were physically and spiritually fine but shaken.

“The wife, who is our organist at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Penelope, was blown from her living room into her kitchen. She was cut up with debris and glass but the injuries are minor,” he said.

The three Catholic churches the deacon serves — Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Mercy in Hillsboro, and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Abbot — have already started relief efforts to help victims. Donations are being channeled through the McLennon County Sheriff’s Department.

“This is a very Catholic area. The people are very close and they’re all family to one another,” Crawley said describing the small towns between Waco and Fort Worth settled by Czech immigrants in the 1850s. “They have a tremendous faith in God and a belief that He overcomes all evil and all sadness. It’s our faith in the risen Christ that gets us through.”

Roberts Nors, a director of the Catholic Union of Texas, a fraternal benefits society founded by Czech immigrants, called the explosion and its aftermath, “the worst thing to hit this area since the 1953 tornado in Waco.”

But, unlike a weather event you can prepare for, the disaster was unexpected.

“That made it worse,” said the St. Mary parishioner who lives 2 1/2 miles away from the destroyed fertilizer plant. “Nobody knew it was coming. When the explosion happened, my house shook.”

Father Tom Kennedy, pastor of Holy Angels Church in Clifton in the Diocese of Fort Worth, spent the evening and early morning hours after the tragedy ministering to the injured arriving by ambulance and car to the Hillsboro Medical Center. Most had no idea what caused the explosive bang and percussion that sent them to a hospital.

“They told me it was like the biggest sonic boom you’ve ever heard,” he remembered. “Then they showed me pictures of cars crushed like beer cans.”

The priest let victims use his cell phone to contact relatives. He traveled to a Red Cross shelter set up in neighboring Abbott the following day to deliver bottled water, blankets and messages returned on his phone by concerned family members.

In the wake of a shocking, life-altering event, the best thing you can offer people is your calming presence, Fr. Kennedy explained. Knowing the area’s predominantly Catholic population would look to the Church for help during the crisis weighed heavily on his mind as he drove down back roads toward the Hillsboro hospital to avoid a clogged I-35. The priest  found 40 people waiting for medical treatment when he arrived.

“At one and two o’clock in the morning there were nine or 10 different ministers from different churches there and we were all doing the same thing,” he recalled. “Just trying to console people. It was an incredible thing.”

Monsignor Stephen Berg, diocesan administrator of the Diocese of Fort Worth, offered prayers and support to the people of West and the Diocese of Austin in the wake of the Aug. 18 explosion. Catholic Charities of Fort Worth will work with Catholic Charities of Austin to coordinate further assistance.

“We extend the support of the Diocese of Fort Worth to the people of West and the Diocese of Austin as they struggle through this devastation,” said Msgr. Berg who spoke personally to Bishop Joseph Vasquez in Austin. “Bishop Vasquez says there is a great need at this time for financial assistance for blood donations for the victims. I ask the people of the Diocese of Fort Worth to respond generously to these needs and take heart from the call of Pope Francis to, ‘Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families.’”


Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth Statement on West Explosion

From Msgr. Stephen Berg, Diocesan Administrator, Diocese of Fort Worth:

 

Our hearts and prayers go out to the people of West and the surrounding areas as they deal with the devastation and suffering caused by the fertilizer plant explosion Wednesday night. We extend the support of the Diocese of Fort Worth to the people of West, and the Diocese of Austin, as they struggle through this devastation. I have spoken with Bishop Joseph Vasquez, Diocese of Austin, and he says that there is a great need at this time for financial assistance and for donations of blood for the victims. I ask that the people of the Diocese of Fort Worth respond generously to these needs, and that we take heart from the call of Pope Francis this morning, to “Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families.

WEST, TX − Father Ed Karasek was driving home from a meeting in Austin when reports of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, came across the radio.

Published (until 12/31/2031)
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