After the Explosions


 NOVEMBER 20, 2002, was a lovely day in the Ecuadoran city of Riobamba. The sky was blue, and white fluffy clouds hovered above. The surrounding snowcapped volcanoes were postcard perfect. The 124,000 people who lived there, some 9,000 feet [2,700 m] up in the Andes Mountains, were going about their normal routines, unaware that this serene scene was about to be violently disturbed. Suddenly, in the afternoon calm, there was a deafening explosion! Windows and floors began to vibrate. An ominous, rapidly expanding mushroom cloud began to form.

Within ten minutes a second explosion occurred, accompanied by a powerful shock wave that shattered windows and blew doors off their hinges. A swirling cloud of fire and smoke​—one that dwarfed the first cloud—​then appeared. A series of explosions and flashes followed.

José and his wife, Ana​—both Jehovah’s Witnesses—​are a couple in their 60’s who lived some 1,300 feet [400 m] from ground zero. They were thrown to the floor by the force of the blast. Ana had been standing near the front door when it was ripped off its hinges and hurled against a back wall. As the terrified couple rushed toward the back of their home, the ceiling began falling in on them. Somehow they managed to exit into a small back patio, where they huddled together and began praying. Happily, 15 minutes later their son arrived with a car to take them to safety.

Not all fared so well. Panic followed the explosions. Masses of people fled on foot. Amid shouting and screaming, some slipped and fell on the broken glass strewn over the sidewalks. Cars, buses, and trucks drove out of the city at reckless speeds, some driving the wrong direction on one-way streets! Many who fled from their schools or jobs did not find out the fate or whereabouts of their family members for nearly 24 hours.

The cause of all this mayhem? A fire at an underground munitions depot at the nearby army base had triggered a massive chain reaction of exploding flares, hand grenades, and tank and mortar shells. As the explosions continued, police vehicles announced over loudspeakers that all should evacuate the city to a distance of at least nine miles [15 km].

Soon Riobamba was deserted. Thousands of local citizens lined the highway outside the city, huddled together in the cold night air​—many without coats or jackets. After several hours the explosions finally began to diminish. Prodded by near-freezing temperatures, the residents cautiously began walking back toward the city. The next morning, in the light of day, many discovered that severe damage had been done to the windows, doors, roofs, ceilings, and walls of their homes. One family found dagger-shaped pieces of glass driven into a bedroom mattress. Others found shrapnel in and around their homes.

Initial reports listed at least 7 dead, 538 injured, and 18,000 homes damaged. Of the 950 Witnesses of Jehovah in the area, none lost their lives, though two were treated for severe cuts.

Aid for the Afflicted

The morning after the explosions, elders in local congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses began calling on their Christian brothers to see how they had fared. Later that day a traveling minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses met with elders from 13 local and outlying congregations to  assess the damage and injuries. He encouraged the elders to care for the emotional and spiritual needs of the survivors. Attending Christian meetings, even under such difficult circumstances, was critical! (Hebrews 10:24, 25) Thus, the local congregations held their regularly scheduled meetings the evening after the disaster.

On Thursday and Friday, a detailed report of the damage to the homes of Witnesses was compiled and sent to the local branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Guayaquil. The report noted the urgent need to seal up hundreds of broken windows in order to protect the residents from the cold. Within hours, the branch office had purchased large rolls of clear plastic, spools of tape, and concrete nails, in order to make temporary repairs.

A supply truck from the branch office arrived at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday. Teams of Witness men and women were already at work helping their fellow Witnesses clean up the broken glass in their homes so that installation of the plastic could begin. A local Kingdom Hall became the center of operations. Marks were made on the floor for quick measuring of the plastic. Using measurements obtained by relief crew members, appropriate lengths of plastic sheeting were cut and then delivered to the waiting installation teams.

José, mentioned earlier, relates: “When we arrived home the afternoon following the explosion, the brothers were already there clearing debris. On Saturday my next-door neighbor came over and remarked on the excellent work done installing plastic sheeting on my house, and he asked me, ‘How much did all of this cost you?’” How surprised the neighbor was to learn that it had been done free of charge!

By Saturday evening, approximately 200 volunteers from local congregations had sealed the windows of 91 Witness homes. Many non-Witnesses also benefited. A local newspaper carried a photo of a home worked on by the Witnesses, noting that only one of the eight occupants was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Emotional Support Provided

The explosions naturally caused intense emotional distress. To provide consolation to local Witnesses, a special meeting was organized for Monday, November 25, at 5:00 p.m. Representatives of the local branch office were sent to conduct it. Because electric lighting was not available, the meeting could not be held any later in the evening. Since the hour seemed somewhat inconvenient, a modest attendance of about 600 was expected. Yet, a crowd of 1,421, which included some non-Witness neighbors, filled the Riobamba Assembly Hall! A key text considered on the program was Psalm 4:8: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for you yourself alone, O Jehovah, make me dwell in security.” All present expressed great appreciation for the comforting spiritual program.

Hundreds of copies of the Awake! article “Natural Disasters​—Helping Your Child to Cope” (June 22, 1996) were handed out to parents at the conclusion of the program. One paragraph of the article states:

“The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) notes that immediately after a disaster, children typically fear that (1) they will be left alone, (2) they will be separated from the family, (3) the event will happen again, and (4) someone will be injured or killed.” Based on this article, parents were urged to:

1. Try to keep the family together.

2. Take time to explain the situation calmly.

3. Encourage the children to talk.

4. Include children in clean-up activities.

 Extra copies of the Awake! article were later shared with neighbors and Bible students.

Three weeks after the explosion, materials were purchased to make more-permanent repairs, including the installation of new windows, ceilings, and roofs. Within another three weeks, these projects had been completed, along with the repair of two Kingdom Halls. Many were the expressions of gratitude for these loving provisions.

Disasters of different kinds are common during these “last days.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5) However, the support Jehovah’s Witnesses render to one another and to their neighbors bears testimony to the power of true Christianity. José put it well when he said: “Jehovah’s organization does not delay in rendering aid to us when we are in need.”

[Pictures on page 15]

Some 200 Witnesses volunteered for the cleanup. New windows were measured, cut, and installed. Roofs were replaced