PHILADELPHIA -- The wailing of sirens called Father Tom
Higgins from his parish rectory and Sisters Linda Lukiewski
and Julie Sertsch from their convent to the scene of the
Amtrak train derailment the evening of May 12.
At about 9:30 p.m., the TV news reported the wreck of
Amtrak's Northeast Regional Train 188, which started in
Washington and was headed for New York City. Aboard were 238
passengers and five crew members.
The crash left at least eight people dead and injured more
than 200 others, with at least eight in critical condition.
Most of the injured were treated at nearby hospitals and
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter described the crash scene
to reporters as "an absolute, disastrous mess. I've never
seen anything like this in my life."
The train's engine and two of the cars were left standing
upright. Three other cars fell on their sides, and a sixth
car was flipped over almost on its roof.
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived
by early morning May 13 to lead an investigation into the
cause of the accident. AP reported that information retrieved
from the train's data recorder indicated the train was going
106 mph in an 80-mph zone before it entered a sharp curve,
where the top speed allowed is 50 mph.
The immediate area where the train derailed is also the
junction where trains headed to southern New Jersey are
switched to other tracks.
"That's only two blocks from here," Sister Linda exclaimed
when she heard the location, near St. Joan of Arc Convent in
Philadelphia's Harrogate area. She and Sister Julie, both
Sisters of St. Joseph, hurried over to get as close as they
could and try to help in any way.
Meanwhile, Father Higgins, also mystified by the persistent
sirens, heard the same news report, and realizing he was now
the closest priest to the scene he decided to drive over.
Pastor at Holy Innocents Parish in the Juniata Park section
of Philadelphia, the priest could only drive halfway to the
crash site before hitting roadblocks, so he walked the rest
of the way.
It was chaotic when he arrived as close as he was permitted.
A police officer directed him to a spot where some passengers
whose injuries did not require immediate transportation to a
hospital were to be placed on buses to be taken to a triage
point, in this case the nearby Webster Public School.
Father Higgins went to the school and found Sisters Linda and
Julie were already there, assisting as best they could.
He was able to talk to some of the families and comfort them.
"I spoke to a family from Singapore here on vacation; there
were two daughters, a brother and sister-in-law. The parents
had already been sent to Einstein Hospital. The rest were OK
except one of the girls had badly injured her leg. They put
her in a wheelchair and the family went to another hospital.
"I didn't have to give anyone the sacrament of the sick or
last rites. No one there was that critical, thank God," he
told CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese
Sisters Linda and Julie had arrived just as the Red Cross and
paramedics were setting up.
"We brought them water, cookies and coffee," Sister Linda
Those people who did not have injuries sufficient to require
further treatment were free to go, and while Amtrak would
eventually provide transportation to their destination it was
not immediately forthcoming because the railroad was shut
Sister Julie offered to drive a group of five people to
Trenton, New Jersey, where they hoped they could continue the
rest of their journey. When they arrived in Trenton, there
were no trains running north from there either. Although
three of the people either had cars or family to pick them
up, a young married couple who were headed for New Brunswick,
New Jersey, had no means to get there.
Without hesitation Sister Julie drove them to New Brunswick
before returning to her convent for a scheduled 7 a.m.
departure on a planned trip to Vermont.
For all three -- Father Tom, Sister Linda and Sister Julie --
there wasn't a need to put their lives at risk although they
would have done so.
"We didn't do anything spectacular," Sister Linda said. "We
just tried to do what we could and it was no more than as
Christians we should do."
In a statement issued the morning after the crash,
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput urged prayers for
all affected by the train derailment.
"I urge all people of goodwill to join me in extending
prayerful condolences to those mourning the sudden loss of a
loved one and in asking the Lord to bring healing to all
those suffering physical and emotional anguish in the wake of
this incident," he said.
"Let us also pray for all of the first responders, emergency
personnel, and medical professionals who have been working to
assist those affected by the derailment," he added. "May God
bless and protect them."
Vice President Joe Biden said in a May 13 statement: "Our
thoughts are with every person who is grieving right now from
this terrible tragedy. As a nation, we pray for the victims
and their families."
"Amtrak is like a second family to me, as it is for so many
other passengers," he said. "For my entire career, I've made
the trip from Wilmington (Delaware) to Washington and back.
I've come to know the conductors, engineers, and other
regulars -- men and women riding home to kiss their kids
goodnight -- as we passed the flickering lights of each
neighborhood along the way."
Baldwin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.