Local pastor, nuns and neighbors rush to scene of devastation, offering comfort and prayers
Father Thomas Higgins was watching television in the rectory of Holy Innocents parish in Philadelphia, where he is pastor, when he heard sirens.
A few blocks away, Sister Linda Lukiewski, SSJ, and Sister Julie Fertsch, SSJ, were watching television and also heard sirens.
"In the inner city you’re always hearing sirens, but when you hear 10, 20, 30, you know there’s something going on," said Father Higgins Wednesday morning. "When I turned the news on and saw the train, and it’s this close," he said of the Amtrak derailment, which took place Tuesday evening only a couple of miles from where he lives. "At that point we didn’t know of any fatalities, but with a wreckage like that you know someone’s going to die, so I felt I had to go over there."
The derailment has claimed seven lives and injured about 65 passengers, several critically. The train, carrying 243 people, derailed in Philadelphia around 9:30 pm. It had originated in Washington, D.C., and was due to arrive at New York’s Penn Station at 10:40pm.
The Sisters of St. Joseph staff a mission of Holy Innocents at a site that’s closer to the train tracks and conduct outreach in the neighborhood.
"We walked over to the site," said Sister Linda. "They were just getting themselves organized, and I said to one of the police, ‘I don’t know if you have anywhere for people to go, but we’re right up the street.’ They said they’d contacted the school district [to open up nearby Webster School], and they have a lot of parking. So we walked up there to see what was going on."
Since the convent is so close, "it was just kind of normal to get some coffee together," Sister Linda said. "Nothing too dramatic."
They also brought cookies and water, and the were there before the Red Cross arrived, Father Higgins pointed out.
Responders were doing triage and busing people to the school, and from there, those who needed more care were taken to area hospitals.
People were shocked, stunned and dazed, Sister Linda said. "The first crowd was pretty ambulatory; they just wanted to go home," she said. "One woman had her car in Trenton, N.J.," so Sister Julie offered to drive her and three others up I-95, a 45-minute trip. Some had planned to get the train in Trenton to go on to New Brunswick, but they found that the trains had stopped running. So Sister Julie drove them the extra 45 minutes to New Brunswick.
"The car ride was a little quiet," Sister Julie said. "People were in shock. I think they couldn’t believe this had happened. We had the radio on for a little bit, trying to see if they had any info on what had caused the crash."
Six of the train’s seven cars were overturned. Parts were so badly mangled that rescue crews had to use hydraulic tools to gain access and free passengers.
Sister Julie said one of her passengers had gotten stuck in one of the train’s bathrooms, so someone had to break in to get him out. "He felt really grateful," she reported. Everyone felt sore from being bounced around or having luggage fall on them, she said. "One woman said someone had landed on her."
Father Higgins initially was on the scene waiting for people who needed someone to talk to. A police officer suggested that he wait there for people who were being triaged, to "just be with them or pray with them."
"You just try to be present," he said.
Eventually, he made his way to the Webster School, about half a mile away, where he found Sister Linda and Sister Julie.
"Sister Linda and I just walked around talking to people, comforting them, offering them some water and coffee and cookies," the priest said. "One of the families I got to talk to for a while were on vacation from Singapore. I really felt bad because the two daughters were there with their aunt and uncle and the daughters’ parents were in the hospital, at Einstein [Medical Center in Philadelphia]. "Apparently they talked to them on their cell phone, so they weren’t in critical condition, but one of the parents was pretty banged up so they were going to have to stay there, and one of the girls was hurt, so they finally took the four of them to another hospital."
Sister Julie, speaking Wednesday morning, noted that passengers commented on "the kindness of the people of the neighborhood."
"That section of Philly doenst always get such a great rap," she said. The passengers in her car "all commented on how kind and sensitive people were in the neighborhood. People really reached out offered them water and Gatorade. You know, the generosity of people…. offering rides. ‘If I could do something I would.’"
In the midst of tragedy, it was, she said, a moment of people coming together.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.