Westover Baptist pastor Jeff Latham received a call July 20, 2018, at 6 a.m. from San Marcos Police Cpl. Laray Taylor. There was a massive apartment fire at Iconic Village and Vintage Pads Apartments, and first responders needed an emergency building to temporarily house survivors, parents and nurses. Latham said without hesitation the church would open in 10 minutes.
Westover Baptist Church became the emergency hub for first responders to investigate the fire, treat wounds, house mourning families and to pray as firefighters fought the blaze for hours to come. At the helm, pastor Jeff Latham helped ease survivors and families back into a daily routine.
The fire, which authorities ruled as intentional during a Nov. 30 press conference, ultimately killed five residents: James Miranda, Haley Frizzell, Belinda Moats, David Ortiz and Dru Estes. Their deaths were ruled as homicides. Hundreds of other residents were displaced, and survivor Zachary Sutterfield is still receiving treatment after suffering burns across nearly 70 percent of his body.
Shortly after the church opened that morning, Brian Frizzell, the father of Texas State student Haley Frizzel was walking up the church steps. He made it before police and fire marshalls, and he immediately began searching for his daughter. Latham, a Southwest Texas State University alumnus, recognized Frizzell, who is also an alumnus.
“As a university alumnus, it is just heart-wrenching thinking about Cheatam apartments, that’s what it was called back then. I thought of all my friends who used to live there when I went to college,” Latham said. “I remembered one of the dads personally, Brian Frizzell. I remembered him from college. He had just lost his wife Michelle and now his daughter Haley, but he didn’t know then. The concern in his eyes was devastating.”
Frizzel spent five days in the restless church waiting for his daughter to show. Latham prayed at his side. At the time, the city had limited protocol for mitigating disasters of this magnitude. The community, however, came together to battle San Marcos’ largest fire with outpouring support, according to Taylor.
“There really was no place to get situated, but Jeff’s relationship with police and the community is what made everything run smoothly and he guided everyone to be in sync,” Taylor said.
Westover’s parishioners assembled a kitchen team to provide three meals a day for five days to the 20 to 40 people waiting for loved ones to show. As time passed, community support grew, and other churches and organizations poured daily necessities for survivors into the church.
“Here at Westover, we just wanted to love on everyone. All of our government agencies, everyone, fell in line immediately because they knew the church was available,” Latham said. “Within 48 hours we began having meetings with everyone: fire chief, police chief. My whole theme of this is to bring everyone together.”
At the time of the fire, Texas State had only one trained emergency coordinator: Glynis Christine. The university quickly trained three more staffers to offer emergency services for this disaster occasion.
Assistant Dean of Students Kathryn Weiser said each crisis, from a death in the family to a natural disaster, must be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“We are always trying to help students the best way we can,” Weiser said. “There is always structure, however, every situation and every student’s needs are different. We strive to continue to provide the best services. Our ultimate goal is to help students graduate.”
The university aided students by sending out an absence notification, which informed faculty to excuse students going through the crisis. Texas State also started a crowdfunding effort that saw over 1,000 supporters reach $112,569, which directly went to 48 students. According to Texas State’s press release for the crowdfunding page, the donations went to replacing clothing, furniture, electronics and in some cases, minor medical costs for applicable students. Texas State provided resource consultations, which guided students as to what their next educational step would be following the fire and displacement.
In the corner of Latham’s desk calendar is a folded paper with a list of five names: Hayley Frizzell, David Ortiz, Belinda Moats, Dru Estes and James Miranda. From July 20 to when the last victim was identified Aug. 3, Latham hoped he could cross names off as they were found.
Latham said he prays daily for Brian Frizzell and everyone who lost loved ones. He frequently visits Sutterfield, who was in the same room as two victims, at U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. Lantham said he will not forget the survivors.
Latham visits Sutterfield as he re-learns how to live in rehabilitation and continues preaching at Westover.