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Southern Baptists play key role in airline crash relief effort

AGANA, Guam (BP)–Tony and Kristi Smith have experienced their share of natural disasters in the two years Tony has served as pastor of Marianas Baptist Church in Guam, including four major earthquakes and two typhoons. But it was the Aug. 6 crash of Korean Air Lines Flight 801 less than five miles from the church that has become the most intense and emotionally draining relief effort the church has ever undertaken.
Smith was asked by the Salvation Army to coordinate counseling services for rescue workers and family members of victims, as well as collection and distribution of food and drinks at the site. About 125 of the approximately 200 members of the church were involved in relief efforts the week following the crash. Although they worked under the auspices of the Salvation Army, Marianas Baptist was the largest group supplying volunteers.
“One of the greatest things I’ve learned is that you can never have your church overprepared to deal with emergencies,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “One of the greatest things for our church was that we were as close as we were and that we responded. … (Relief officials) said they had never seen a church respond as quickly as we did and with the force that we did.”
At least 199 of the 226 people aboard the plane were killed.
Smith, a Kentucky native, said he first learned of the crash from an emergency medical technician who is a member of the church. The call came at 4 a.m., about two hours after the accident. Several other members were among the first on the scene, helping pull some of the 27 survivors from the wreckage.
Smith, who hosts a weekly talk program on the Christian Trans World Radio network in Guam, went on the air to enlist support for relief efforts. “Stuff started coming in from hotels, restaurants, other churches … it was just a matter of the whole community joining together,” he said.
Three primary relief stations soon were established to support rescue and recovery workers: one at the main highway several miles from the site, one at the top of the cliff nearest the remote crash site that also served as a center for counseling efforts and another at the bottom of the hill as near as possible to the crash site itself.
The lower camp — closest to the grisly task of removing the remains of victims — was supervised by Smith’s wife, Kristi. She, her daughter and two others manned the tent for four days from sunup to sundown.
“We felt like the people needed to see our face every day and get familiar with us and talk with us … so we could help with counseling,” she said.
“I never realized I could do the things and see the things I saw without being very emotional,” she added later. “But I didn’t even have to think about it. … I just hauled down some ice and started to work. It didn’t even occur to me to be scared or that sort of thing. I felt it was an honor to be able to help.”
Tony Smith also helped coordinate counseling services for about 300 family members of the victims who came to Guam, primarily from Korea. Counselors dealt with the immense grief, frustration and anger, particularly as the family members visited the crash site. One area was set up on the cliff where family members could say their last farewells; one man standing near Smith attempted to jump off the cliff but was stopped by a soldier.
Smith said he worked non-stop for about two days and nights after the accident, culminating in the gut-wrenching task of working with family members at the site on Aug. 9. “It was the most emotional day I think I have ever spent in my life,” he said.
At the church, members were busy around the clock making sandwiches and preparing supplies. “The Hawaii Baptist Convention sent $1,000 for the relief effort to the church, which was largely needed to buy Gatorade,” Smith said, noting intense heat and hazardous conditions made providing liquids one of their most important tasks. The church, founded by the International Mission Board, is now a part of the Hawaii convention.
The last of the volunteers were relieved at the site by Korean Air Lines workers by Aug. 13, but Smith said his counseling work is far from over. Those who assisted with the effort continue to deal with the trauma of what they have seen and experienced.
“I guess there’s no limit to how your faith in God helps you through these things,” he said. “The greatest thing that I’ve learned is that God doesn’t hide us under his wings to protect us, but he hides us to prepare us. And then he puts us back in the battle.”

Information on how churches can prepare for disasters is available through Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, coordinated through state convention Brotherhood offices and the North American Mission Board volunteer mobilization team.

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  • James Dotson