Church moves into action after deadly sugar refinery blast

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (BP)--At first he saw a large plume of smoke rising in the air like a mushroom cloud. Then he saw a large fireball.

As Sam Self turned his car in the direction of his church, just a few blocks from the Imperial Sugar Company's massive refinery, he saw the surreal setting caused by two explosions around 7:17 p.m. on Feb. 7.

"My first thought was that an airplane had crashed on takeoff or landing at the Savannah airport nearby," said Self, pastor of First Baptist Church in this close-knit blue-collar community.

Employees were walking out the front gates of the refinery -– the nation's second-largest sugar processor -– stunned, dazed, clothes shredded. Through providence, Self was one of the first on the scene of one of Georgia's worst industrial accidents in decades.

The trauma would be reported on national news broadcasts and in the nation's newspapers for days: Nearly 70 injured and a death toll now at 11 from a fire that raged for days in two silos with temperatures up to 4,000 degrees.

It was the worst disaster Self had seen since a creosote plant exploded early in his ministry when he lived in Louisiana. While it was a different product, the result was the same: A major explosion, workers critically injured, and massive burns that took innocent lives and tore families from their moorings.

Within minutes of the explosion, the neighborhood was flooded with ambulances, fire trucks, police cars and rescue equipment from first responders throughout the area. As the community rallied to help, one thing that stood out in Self's mind was how First Baptist's members were among the first to offer themselves in ministry amid the growing crisis.

When Self became pastor of the 600-member congregation seven years ago, he began an emphasis on teaching the congregation to be "a blessing to the community." Through a variety of ministries -– but, more important, through personal interaction -– members became sensitive to ways they could meet needs wherever they found them.

"Being a blessing has taken hold of our folks," Self said. "Their first thought after the explosion was how they could open the church to the community for use as it saw fit."

That generosity resulted in the facility being designated a support site to give first responders a place to rest, get a meal and talk through the grief of their experiences.

"My people did this without me. They didn't wait for me to begin calling them, they started calling me. I saw an outpouring of 'Who is my neighbor?' like the Bible talks about in Luke 10."

Carolyn Butler, a 42-year member of First Baptist, was eating supper when she heard the explosion and thought two large trucks had collided.

"It was so powerful that we heard it and felt it," she said.

"Several of us from the church opened the building and made coffee and got the word out that anyone could come in for a rest or get something to eat or drink. We didn't know what to do, we just made ourselves available. We stayed through the night and finally left around 5 a.m., went home and got a couple hours sleep and returned at 7 a.m. and started again.

"The least I felt I could do was to help someone in their need ... offer them some coffee, make a sandwich, maybe not say a word but just put an arm around them.

"The thing I remember from those early days is that it was just such an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. But I felt it was important to be there. Many will never remember what we said but they will remember that we were there for them," she added.

If there is one thing Self says his congregation will not forget, it is "the importance of 'today.' Some of those employees went to work that afternoon just like they have every day for 25 or 30 years. But in one second, in a heartbeat, it was all over.

"We have learned the importance of caring for folks outside the walls of the church, of blessing them. We are pushing our folks into living out their giftedness and they are discovering how natural that is."

Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

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