GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–What began as the end of another “hard day at the office” for a New Mexico pastor turned out to be one of the most memorable, exhausting and traumatic weeks of his life.
Chuck McCullough, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church, Los Alamos, finally found a few minutes to talk from his temporary home at Glorieta, a LifeWay Conference Center, at the end of the troubling week, May 13.
McCullough simply recounted the ordeal that, at the time of the telephone interview with the Baptist New Mexican newsjournal, was in its seventh day. He began by describing the phone call he received from the American Red Cross only minutes after arriving home Sunday evening, May 7, at about 6:30. The official told the pastor they needed to meet him at the church at 7.
Only a few months earlier, the church had agreed to serve as a Red Cross center in the unlikely event of a disaster in the area.
A prescribed “controlled” burn by the National Parks Service on May 4 quickly got out of control, and three days later, on Sunday evening, portions of Los Alamos near the White Rock community were evacuated.
Evacuees began arriving at the newly christened relief center by 8.
And so did all the help the church would need during the next three days that its facilities would serve as a command center and shelter.
“I never had to make one call,” the still-astonished pastor said. The stream of volunteers from the church and community “never stopped,” McCullough said of the “hundreds” who were willing to help in any way they could, including opening their homes for people, pets and even horses.
In addition to serving as the command center and shelter, the church provided all the meals for evacuees and workers for the next three days.
“It was just an amazing thing,” said McCullough of the experience of watching volunteers work six-hour shifts to care for the 60 people who were processed into the shelter.
It was tiring as well. McCullough estimated he may have only gotten a total of 10 hours sleep from Sunday until Thursday, with none on the first and last nights the shelter was in operation.
About midnight on Wednesday night, things were slowing down at the church, so McCullough went home for what he hoped would be — finally — a good night’s sleep.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rang. Again, it was the Red Cross, which informed that the wildfire now threatened the White Rock community, and its population of 7,000, plus evacuees staying in homes and shelters, might have to be evacuated.
McCullough returned to the church, and half an hour later the order came, and the Red Cross and evacuees packed up and left.
McCullough went back home to help his wife, Karen, and 15-year-old twin daughters, Joy and Grace, leave their home and all their belongings.
Describing the agony of his daughters as they tried to decide what to take with them, McCullough said he encouraged them by saying, “I have three treasures in this house,” referring to them and their mother.
McCullough left the house with his treasures, plus a pair of jeans and three T-shirts. He admitted three days later, though, “I wish now I would have grabbed a few more things.”
With his family now in the bumper-to-bumper line of vehicles leaving for Santa Fe, McCullough and a friend, Darrik Stafford, returned to the church to lock it up.
When they arrived, they were greeted by two national guardsmen, who asked if they had any food. The guardsmen then told them about 50 fellow guardsmen who also were hungry, and they asked if the entire crew could come for breakfast.
McCullough and Stafford started cooking, and the troops arrived at 6 a.m. for a breakfast of French toast — and sandwiches the pair had packaged for the group for lunch.
About 4 a.m. the Emergency Operation Center from Los Alamos National Laboratory called the church, telling McCullough they were hungry, too, and asking if they could come pick up some food.
After picking it up, the EOC called back telling the pastor of another 200 people still at the lab who also could use some food.
At about 8:30 Thursday morning, after filling a Suburban full of all the remaining food and water at the church, and long after the town had been emptied, McCullough and Stafford finally left the church.
The town was supposed to be evacuated, McCullough said, but “we were exactly where we were supposed to be.”
After a quick shower at home, McCullough finally joined his family at about 11:30 a.m. at Glorieta. He said that when he went to the registration desk and was told there would be no charge, “I just broke down in sobs.”
Sleep escaped the weary warrior that afternoon, but after weeping “all the way through” the chapel service at Glorieta that evening, he finally got a good night’s sleep.
He was awakened Friday morning with a “strong need” to find out where his friends and church members were. He spent the entire day at the shelter in Santa Fe ministering to people. “Everybody had to tell you their story,” he said.
That evening he preached during the chapel service back at Glorieta. Addressing the crowd as a “fellow refugee,” McCullough encouraged them with Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 to seek first God’s kingdom and he would provide them with everything they needed, fully aware that many of them had lost nearly all their personal possessions.
When asked what Baptists can do to help, McCullough estimated that the church and community has “a year-long job ahead of us.”
While 260 now-homeless families are facing “utter devastation” and experiencing overwhelming grief, he said, others are having to deal with “survivor guilt.”
The community will be changed forever, the pastor said. And “those beautiful green mountains” will be gone for the rest of their lifetimes, he lamented.
Residents of White Rock were allowed to return to their homes on Sunday, May 14.
Additional (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo titles: RULES, WHAT RULES?; OVERWHELMING SCENE and SECURITY.