WEST, Texas — For some 24 years now, Father Ed Karasek has ministered in the small, primarily Catholic town of West, Texas. An explosion Wednesday night at the local fertilizer plant decimated whole blocks of his town and took the lives of some of his parishioners.
As a priest, he says, “You feel like a father who has lost children. You love these people like a father loves his children. You’re a spiritual father. … And you hurt.”
Father Karasek is among those spearheading the Church’s response to the tragedy.
The parking lot of the parish Church of the Assumption — about 10 blocks from the explosion site — has become a makeshift food pantry, where workers, volunteers and families can get a meal any time of day.
The parish also became a space for emergency response teams to coordinate their efforts.
Meanwhile, Father Karasek said, the staff has been hit personally by the tragedy. The son of the parish secretary — a volunteer fireman who was one of the first respondents — is among the dead.
Father Karasek is “bouncing back and forth” between the parking lot and the chapel, said parishioner Veronica Selderhoss, who volunteers at the parish in various roles and is now helping to cover the secretarial duties.
“He’s in church to help anybody who wants to be prayed with; he’s out in the parking lot, comforting, helping distribute (food and supplies). Then he comes in the rectory, and, of course, our phones are ringing off the wall, so he’s helping me answer the phone,” Selderhoss said. “He’s very busy and doing a fantastic job.”
“He doesn’t turn anyone away, even though he’s exhausted. ... He keeps going,” she added. “He’s very strong for us.”
The explosion Wednesday evening at West Fertilizer Co. apparently resulted from a fire at the plant that started some minutes earlier. An investigation of the cause of the fire was beginning today, as the area had been deemed too unsafe for many hours after the explosion.
Twelve bodies had been recovered Friday morning, but an official death toll has not been released.
In such a small town, the priest acknowledged, even without an official list of victims, most already know which families have lost a loved one.
He affirmed that increased time for prayer, despite the chaos, is helping him stay strong. “[I’m] just keeping close to the Lord in prayer. I’m taking extra time for prayer, especially for the families and people I know. ... A lot of other priests and other ministers have called from around the country, even outside the country, just to offer their prayers and their support,” he said.
In fact, hours after the explosion, Pope Francis tweeted a call for prayer (“Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families”), and, through his secretary of state, the Holy Father sent a message to Bishop Joe Vásquez of the Diocese of Austin.
The Pope conveyed his “heartfelt condolences” and the assurance that 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.”
Bishop Vásquez will be in West tonight to lead an interfaith service — a follow-up to a service held yesterday with Father Karasek and the other Christian ministers who work in West.
On his way to the town, the bishop will first stop at the Catholic hospital in nearby Waco, where many of the wounded were taken. The town of West does not have a hospital.
Bishop Vásquez's spokesman, Christian González, said the bishop’s main message has been a call to prayer, as well as echoing “that message of consolation and peace that Pope Francis sent to the diocese, which was very, very touching.”
González also praised Father Karasek’s “deep spirituality and deep faith,” saying the priest is “standing strong and keeping the community together.”
The community of West is predominantly Czech, with most people tracing their ancestry to Moravian or German migrants in the 1870s. The community’s population of 2,900 is mostly Catholic; the parish has 1,275 registered families. The parish is also home to a school, pre-K through eighth grade, with 136 students and 17 faculty members.
González noted that, as the explosion happened Wednesday evening, many people were at the church or just leaving from their weekly religious-education program. The church building sustained minimal damage from the explosion, which cracked some of the stained-glassed windows.
Speaking from the parish, Selderhoss shared that the community itself is a support system in such a tragedy.
“Things like this happen on the news,” she reflected. “And all you can do is think, ‘Oh, my gosh, these people need prayers.’ Then when it hits you at home, you’re just in a state of shock. And when you lose parishioners, family members ... it’s almost unbearable,” she said. “[But] because it’s a small community, you always have somebody there to support you. It doesn’t matter what time of day or night; you can always call somebody, and they’re there ... to listen to you, talk to you, give you a hug, comfort you, give you a place to stay.”
Selderhoss noted that the families who lost their homes — as many as 50 houses were destroyed or damaged, as well as an apartment building, a retirement home and a school — found shelter with other family members or friends and that there had been no need for the parish to house anyone.
Father Karasek mentioned the community’s spirit of perseverance at the vigil Thursday night. He told the Register their perseverance can be attributed to their faith.
“I think [their faith] is giving them the strength to know that we celebrate the Resurrection, new life in the Lord,” he said. “It’s the Year of Faith, and their faith has been tested, but, somehow, they have to persevere. They’ve gone through tough times. They come from a strong faith,” pointing out the way the immigrant roots of the community have formed the people’s character.
Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, associate national executive director for the south-central region of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, as well as president of Texas Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, is on her way to West to help coordinate the relief effort.
“All the Catholic organizations are working together to have a coordinated response in West,” she explained.
That response includes furniture collections and monetary donations so that direct assistance can be given to families. St. Vincent de Paul team members have recently gained experience working with families on the East Coast who lost homes due to Hurricane Sandy.
The regional group is coordinating case management, with one-on-one work with families for a long-term response. “And the long term is the most difficult phase of any disaster,” Disco-Shearer said.
Among the services to be offered to families in West is the “house in a box” initiative, born from the crisis of Hurricane Katrina and used in the wake of the Texas wildfires in 2011. The charity purchases furniture en masse from vendors such as Ikea so that when families go into “a temporary housing situation, like into an apartment, they have everything they need to have a starter home set up,” Disco-Shearer said.
But even with experience gleaned from other disasters and good coordination, she added, “It’s huge. We need prayers.”
Register correspondent Kathleen Naab writes from Houston,
where she covers news of the Church as a coordinator for Zenit News Service.