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Dragster tragedy prompts Baptist ministry

SELMER, Tenn. (BP)–When a drag racing car slammed into a crowd of people who had lined the street for a parade in southwest Tennessee, leaving at least six dead, several Baptist ministers quickly were on the scene or at the local hospital.

The tragedy occurred during the Cars for Kids Car Show, an annual charity event in Selmer which typically draws thousands of people.

At least two of those killed were members of Tennessee Baptist churches —- Brook Pope, 20, of Lakeview Baptist in Selmer and a student at Blue Mountain College in Mississippi, and Scarlett Replogle, 15, of West Jackson Baptist Church in Jackson, reported Blake Carroll, a Southern Baptist evangelist and chaplain for the McNairy County Sheriff’s Department.

Carroll, also a Lakeview member, said some of the 20 others who were killed or injured may have been members of or attended Baptist churches in the area but he could not verify it as of June 19.

According to a report in The Jackson Sun, a professional driver was performing an exhibition burnout (spinning his tires to make them heat up and smoke) when his car went out of control.

The car was a National Hot Rod Association-approved race car driven by Troy Warren Critchley of Wylie, Texas, The Sun reported.

As of June 19, no charges had been filed against the driver, according to Mike Browning, a Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman.

Carroll had taken his family to a carnival held in conjunction with the car show when he learned about the accident.

Sheriff Ricky Roten informed Carroll about what had transpired and encouraged him to go to McNairy Regional Hospital.

“At that time I did not know the extent of the tragedy,” Carroll said. “I did know there had been fatalities.” When he arrived at the hospital, Carroll said the parking lot “looked like a mall at Christmas. People were everywhere.”

Other ministers of all denominations, including between six or more Tennessee Baptist ministers, began to arrive, immediately ministering to and praying with families affected by the tragedy, Carroll said.

Phil Mitchell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Adamsville, and a volunteer chaplain at the hospital, was called to the hospital by a church member who is a nurse there.

“I had never seen anything like it,” Mitchell said. “Seminary does not prepare you for a time like this.”

Mitchell accompanied a father to view his 15-year-old daughter who had been killed, recounting, “He told me she had been saved. That was bringing him great peace and hope.”

Mitchell said he ministered to patients and families in the emergency room. He recalled walking by a big burly man lying on a stretcher and seeing a nurse just holding his hand.

“People were not only injured, they were scared,” Mitchell said. Many people did not have family members with them and some of the patients were unidentified.

“Sometimes a touch is the best thing we can do,” Mitchell said.

Carroll noted that most, if not all, of the people at the hospital were in shock. He told of one girl who suffered minor injuries leaving the hospital but then sat down on the steps and began weeping.

“I knelt beside her and asked if I could pray for her,” Carroll said. He shared the promise of Romans 8:28 with her and others: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (HCSB).

Carroll has been interviewed by national media following the tragedy. He noted a reporter from CNN asked him how a person ministers in a situation like this.

“I told him that all you can do is to put your arms around the people, tell them that God loves them, and that there is hope and encouragement through Jesus Christ,” Carroll said.

Pastor Greg Gaddis of First Baptist Church in Selmer, who has been through crisis intervention training, said, “I don’t think anything can prepare you for this kind of trauma.

“You pray that God will use you as an instrument of His mercy and grace to individuals in a time like this.”

Gaddis also was at the carnival with his daughters and they saw the car take off.

“I remarked at the time that the guy was going too fast,” he recalled. “We did not see the accident. I’m so thankful for that.”

Both Gaddis and Mitchell praised the staff of the McNairy Regional Hospital. “Our medical staff handled it well considering it was so chaotic,” Gaddis said.

Gaddis noted all the ministers worked well together in praying with people or helping them get information about their loved ones.

All the injured taken to the hospital were released or transported to other hospitals in Jackson, Memphis or Nashville, Carroll said.

The community remains in shock, Carroll said, because countless people have been affected in addition to those injured and killed.

“The streets were lined with hundreds of people. This accident will be forever etched in their minds and will probably affect them for the rest of their lives,” Carroll said.

“The mood of the town is somber,” Gaddis agreed. He noted that the town has not recovered from the Mary Winkler trial (the woman who killed her minister husband) and all the “hype” associated it.

“Our town is struggling and ready to move beyond such tragic events,” Gaddis said.

Carroll said he and Don Harold Lawrence, a Methodist minister and grief counselor for Shackelford Funeral Directors, will be conducting a support group session on June 28 at the McNairy County Justice Complex for people affected by the tragedy.

Carroll said he also has been in contact with Tennessee Baptist disaster relief counselors who plan to attend the session and offer counseling to those who need it.
Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist & Reflector, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

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