First responders are a special group—selfless and brave and fiercely devoted to the community they protect. They understand the risk that each of them chooses to take and so, when one of them falls, they all bear the loss. The deep respect they have for all of their fellow responders was on display last week when crews from across the country came into Waco, Texas to honor the 12 emergency responders who died in the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
“An awe-inspiring moment.”The American Red Cross was privileged to be allowed to participate in the proceedings. Two of our Emergency Response Vehicles joined hundreds of fire trucks and first response vehicles in a procession that ran more than a mile long. Our executive directors from DFW, Austin and Waco—T.D. Smyers, Marty McKellips and Mark Felton respectively—also attended the service. Before the procession, the Red Cross provided breakfast to thousands of firefighters and first responders who came to pay their respects.
“It was amazing just to be there at that breakfast to hear the bagpipe players practicing and to be flanked by literally hundreds of fire trucks, ambulances and first responders,” said Mark Felton, executive director of the American Red Cross, Heart of Texas Chapter. “We were the only non-uniformed people allowed to ride in the procession, which was such a distinctive honor. Driving under the flag held up by the two ladders on the fire trucks was just an awe-inspiring moment.”
As Marty McKellips, regional CEO for Central Texas, noted, the Red Cross has always worked closely with fire departments all over the country, responding to more than 60,000 home fires each year.
“We have a very close relationship with many of these fire departments since we work with them on home fires all the time. So it’s very special for us to be able to participate,” said McKellips.
The service was a long and emotional one, with video eulogies for everyone who passed. T.D. Smyers, regional CEO for DFW, noted a common theme in the eulogies, given by the family and friends of the deceased.
“They all said each of these people would have given you the shirt off their back. Every one of them was like that. It’s no surprise. Of course volunteer firefighters and first responders would be made up of those kinds of people. It was a real privilege to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those first responders, who were there for their comrades.”
One of the most moving parts of the ceremony came when more than 200 bagpipe and drum players surrounded the families and played “Amazing Grace.”
“The volume and the emotion of that experience was heartfelt,” described Smyers. “It felt like a moment where the community might begin healing.”
“From the moment it happened, we were ready.”The American Red Cross has had a strong presence from the beginning of relief efforts in West. Teams from both Central and North Texas deployed within hours of the explosion and since then, more than 200 Red Cross disaster responders have worked on the operation.
“I am extremely proud of our team. From the minute the explosion happened, our folks were ready to respond,” said Smyers. “I’m especially pleased with the leadership our team displayed, establishing the Joint Assistance Center, convening with other nonprofits to make sure we provided the best service possible. It definitely shows that providing humanitarian service to those in need is the top priority of the Red Cross.”
For Mark Felton, it has been an especially rewarding experience, since he joined the Red Cross less than a year ago and suddenly found himself called upon to be a leader in a disaster right in his backyard.
“Personally, being from the area, I was glad to able to use my personal relationships and knowledge of the area to make it a little easier for the Red Cross to provide services to the people of West,” said Felton. “It’s been especially rewarding to be able to work with city officials and our partner organizations…to be able to hear about a problem in the community and tap Red Cross resources to solve that problem.”
In the first two weeks in West, the Red Cross has served more than 18,600 meals and snacks and distributed more than 19,400 clean up and hygiene relief items. Our nurses and licensed counselors have made more than 1,200 health contacts and 1,500 mental health contacts with residents. Additionally, we’ve worked closely with partner organizations to open a joint assistance center where residents could meet with multiple agencies about their needs.
“It was really important to me to be able to respond to this community with the full force of the American Red Cross,” Felton said. “I’ve been so proud that we’ve been able to bring that to our response here in West.”
“The work of the Red Cross continues.”More than two weeks after the explosion, West is only now taking their first steps towards recovery. Families were recently allowed back in to Zone 3, the area most critically impacted by the blast, and are now trying to collect what they can out of the debris. It’s clear the recovery process is just beginning.
Through all of this, the support from the rest of the country has been heartening. In fact, within days of the explosion, the town received such an influx of donated items, they actually had to ask that further donations be put on hold.
“It’s been an overwhelming response from the community,” said Felton.
Added McKellips: “When I think back to the memorial, I will remember how everyone came together. People from all over the country, all sides of the political spectrum, senators, the President. I think the support shown is what I will remember the most.”
So, the Red Cross will continue to support long-term recovery in West, even as disaster responders around the country are racing to support the thousands affected by flooding in the Midwest and wildfires in California. These are just some of the nearly 70,000 disasters the Red Cross responds to each year.
“A disaster that rocks a town, like the explosion in West, Texas, could happen anywhere”, said Felton. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the Red Cross needs more volunteers, more blood donors and more financial givers to be sure that we are 100 percent ready to go within minutes of a call to action.”
To help by donating time, blood or funds, visit RedCross.org to get started.
View more pictures from the memorial, taken by our volunteer photographer Barbara Smyers: