WEST, Texas (SWBTS) – Less than 24 hours after a fertilizer plant exploded in the central Texas town of West, Fire Chaplain John Babler arrived on the scene and helped emergency crews remove the remains of fallen first responders from the blast zone. A week later, as Co-Incident Commander for the Texas Line of Duty Death (LODD) Task Force, Babler introduced President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to the families of the 12 fallen firefighters and EMS workers following the April 25 memorial service at Baylor University’s Ferrell Center.
“When the president arrived, there were three of us who met him and welcomed him on behalf of the task force,” said Babler, who serves as associate professor of counseling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
“He and Mrs. Obama were very compassionate and thankful for what we had done.”
Following the memorial service, the president and first lady spent an additional hour meeting with each family individually.
“Both he and Mrs. Obama went group to group introducing themselves, talking with each person,” Babler said. “I had the opportunity to walk through with them. In addition to his remarks during the program being very appropriate and very helpful and encouraging to the families, that time with them alone after, I know, was very encouraging to them.”
In the wake of the April 17 tragedy that made national news, Babler experienced long hours, little sleep, and emotional exhaustion. Still, Babler and his colleagues embraced the difficult assignment in front of them.
“My primary role the night [after the blast] was to go into the hot zone and represent the families as a chaplain and make sure that their loved ones were handled with dignity as they were placed in the funeral home van and honor guard members draped them with a U.S. flag,” Babler recalls.
Babler’s responsibilities in the week following the explosion included planning the joint memorial service, providing honor guard and chaplaincy support for the families as well as firefighters and EMS workers, and providing support for the individual funerals.
“Since we found out that President Obama would be attending the service,” Babler said, “much of my time was spent in planning meetings with White House staff, Secret Service, Baylor University, and others as we developed and coordinated the memorial service.”
Babler said his goal was to “honor the fallen while making sure that the fallen were the focus of and were truly honored by the service and that the families, firefighters and EMS workers were the VIPs of the service.” Thousands of friends, family and community members attended the memorial service, which featured remarks from President Obama, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Baylor President Ken Starr, and others.
Yet, even though the memorial service is over, Babler’s work is not complete. The LODD response team, a partner with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, provides counseling for families and firefighters in the wake of these tragic deaths. They spend an average of three years caring for a family and one year caring for a department.
“The LODD Task Force and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation will continue to provide chaplain, benefits and survivor support for the families for years to come,” Babler said.