By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
WAVERLY — In the 40 years Tennessee Baptists have responded to disasters in the state and around the globe, countless volunteers have trekked to be the hands and feet of Jesus when people needed a friend and a helping hand.
But the state convention’s first “official” disaster relief response was done with little fanfare and no volunteers or equipment. In fact, the Tennessee Baptist Convention Executive Board didn’t acquire a DR vehicle until after the first response.
On Feb. 24, 1978, a derailed L&N railroad car carrying liquid propane gas exploded, killing 16 people and injuring more than 200 others. Many of the survivors still carry scars from the burns they received.
Archie King, then the TBC’s brotherhood director and first disaster relief director, and the late Al Shackleford (former editor of the B&R) visited First Baptist Church, Waverly (the town’s only Baptist church at the time, according to published reports), and presented a check for $2,000 to assist in ministry to families affected by the explosion.
In a letter published in the B&R in March, pastor Maurice Coleman wrote, “Being a part of the fellowship of Tennessee Baptists was a lifeline of support in crisis. The Baptist and Reflector and Missions and Brotherhood departments (of the Executive Board) had representatives here on the scene immediately. … These were messengers of God embodying the living hope which is in Christ.”
Though 40 years have passed, the event is still remembered vividly in the community, said Scott Brown, current pastor of FBC. “There is no other singular event as impactful upon the culture of our community as that explosion,” Brown observed. “The metaphorical aftershock is still felt today in the lives of many and it is seen all across our community on the faces and in the hearts of our people.
“Obviously, I wasn’t here then but so many of our members were and it still solicits a strong emotional response as many have had their hearts seared by the horror of that moment,” Brown said.
Lanelle Coleman, the widow of Maurice Coleman, remembers the train derailment and subsequent explosion vividly. An employee of the Department of Human Services in the town, Mrs. Coleman worked nonstop over the next few days. In addition, her husband spent 44 hours ministering to needs in the community after the explosion, not stopping until it was time to preach the following Sunday morning, according to a report in the March 9, 1978 issue of the B&R.
“It affected all of us,” Mrs. Coleman recalled in a recent interview with the Baptist and Reflector. “It was an emotional experience because it happened to people we all knew,” she added.
Town mayor Buddy Frazier, a current member of First Baptist Church, was a 25-year-old police officer in town when the explosion happened. Just minutes before the railcar erupted, Frazier had been sent from the scene by police chief Guy Barnett Sr. to get another car. Frazier would later drive Barnett to the hospital where he died from injuries he sustained. In addition, the town’s fire chief (Wilbur York) also died from the explosion.
“The emotional toll still exists 40 years later,” he said.
Frazier can’t escape the memories of that day. “We got through it the best we could,” he said. Frazier said he thought he did a great job of coping with his emotions following the tragedy until a year later when he had to relive what happened through court depositions. “It hit me then,” he said.
After the explosion, a curfew was set and no one could enter or leave the town. Mrs. Coleman said they didn’t know until early on Sunday morning if they could even have a church service, but the curfew was lifted. “We didn’t know what to expect,” she recalled. “We ended up with a full house as people were encouraging one another and giving moral support. It was a great service.”
Frazier agreed. “Our town is at its best when times are at their worst. We come together.”
Brown, Frazier and Mrs. Coleman were not aware that the explosion is considered the beginning of Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief, but they are glad the tragedy had some positive results. Not only was it the beginning of TBDR but the explosion also caused government officials to enact legislation to tighten up laws on how flammable liquids are shipped.
“You’re always glad to have something positive come out of a sad situation,” Mrs. Coleman said.
Brown agreed. “Nothing good could have come from this but from a really good God,” he said.
“Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief is built upon people loving God and loving their fellow man.” — Wes Jones, disaster relief specialist, TBMB
“We may take bread, we may take out a chain saw unit, we may take out a mud out team, but we are sharing the Bread of Life with people.” — Tim Bearden, former TBC DR director
“Disaster relief is those things we do to build bridges and to build relationships so that we can share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those around us.” — David Acres, former TBC DR director
“We’re here to help everybody, not just people who are Baptist.” — Joyce Curington, DR volunteer from Roseberry Baptist Church, Mascot
“Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief is a God-given opportunity to sacrifice in Christ’s name and bring life to the hurting.” — Jean Canida, DR volunteer from First Baptist Church, Mount Juliet
“Our greatest responsibility is to be ready to go when disaster hits.” — Kent Mathis, DR volunteer, Bellevue Baptist Church, Cordova
“We can’t take the glory for what God does. He does a lot for us.” — Don Owen, DR director, Nolachucky Baptist Association, Morristown
“We like to give a cold glass of water and a hot meal in the name of Jesus. If we get away from this, we might as well stay home. God is the reason we do what we do.” — Jim Ramey, DR volunteer, Sullivan Baptist Church, Kingsport.
“It’s been an awesome opportunity to share my experiences of how Christ has changed my life and how I get to be His hands and feet and help change other people’s lives. I’m looking forward to spending the rest of my life in this ministry and helping serve Jesus.” — Sarah Layne, DR volunteer and member of the UT, Knoxville, BCM
MILESTONE EVENTS IN DISASTER RELIEF
(Over the past 40 years Tennessee Baptists have been involved in more than 200 major disaster events. This does not include the countless local disasters that association and church DR teams responded to that were never included in any official count. The following events are just a small sampling of how Tennessee Baptists have responded to hurting people during their time of need.)