Generally I don’t write from the perspective of my personal experiences, at least to this degree, but based on events last Friday in suburban Chicago, I wanted to share a couple of spiritual insights. In doing so, I hope you can get a glimpse into this life-altering experience that three days later I am still very shaken by.
At approximately 8:40 am on Friday, May 13th, the Metra train I was riding struck a dump truck carrying a load of concrete that had managed to navigate onto the tracks at the very instant we were passing through the intersection in the city of Des Plaines, the train going roughly 50 mph. No horn, no breaking to avoid impact—it was as much a surprise to the train engineer as it was to the passengers. The impact was followed immediately by an explosion and fire pouring up through the train car vestibule floor. During these first seconds after impact, the train engineer in the lead car where I sat was struggling to gain control, the train violently lurching and jumping while trying to remain upright. From my vantage point—first seat in the upper deck by a southern facing window—my thoughts were in multiple directions with zero clarity. There was the real and strong possibility that the train car would tip over onto the center track and dozens, if not hundreds, would be hurt or killed due to the derailing itself or even the threat of oncoming train traffic.
It was within the train vestibule where the flames were shooting upward, an area where people commonly stand as they await to exit upon arriving at their stop. Upon seeing the flames and experiencing the persistent and increasing turbulence associated with the impact and derailment, I wondered if the train was breaking apart and if that floor of the vestibule was simply gone—along with people. Were passengers being trampled by the train? Were the rest of us next? There was no sense of slowing down from my recollection, and smoke was filling the car. The smell of diesel engulfed the train, and the flames and the accompanying heat persisted for what seemed to be an eternity. It seemed like I was frozen in time. While unsure if we were even going to safely stop, all hopes of getting off the train were going up in flames—literally. The windows weren’t an option at this point because as I looked at them I remember thinking I didn’t know how to open them. I never felt more alone, even with at least a dozen people sitting behind me in the upper deck. Though there was screaming, I don’t remember myself screaming. At one instance, I do remember thinking that things were getting worse and hope for escape was unlikely.
When the train eventually came to a near stop and the fire in the vestibule subsided, we began to pour toward the exit. A young woman next to me kept repeating, “I gotta get off this train, I gotta get off this train.” My first coherent thought was, “yes, we all need to get off this train!” But fear overtook us again in the vestibule as the conductor, who I know as Greg, pleaded with us to not exit because, while a door was open, it faced another two sets of tracks. At the same time, he was struggling to open the door through which we would eventually exit. From what I recall, Greg and the other conductor whose name I regret not knowing had to use the full force of their bodies to open the doors as they were jammed shut from the impact. My heart sank knowing the great responsibility they were undertaking when their normal day usually involves taking tickets and, at worst, chasing down those who like to get a free ride.
After exiting, I immediately turned to look at the train to see the twisted metal that was the lead car and the second car completely blackened from the flames that had also poured into my car. The conductors now underneath the car with fire extinguishers, the reality of the miraculous set in and the heroic efforts of the Metra crew fully recognized.
At every moment during the accident I feared, not necessarily death, but the nature of death and suffering and the lives of so many others that might have been lost. I was overcome with my own desire for self-preservation and sickened by it as I encountered the young woman at the exit verbalizing her need to escape, her honest words simply verbalizing what we were all thinking. Thankfully, many were helping others exit the train cars through emergency exit windows and through doors as they were being opened and strangers were comforting strangers as we reached safety. I would love to say that I remember many people thanking God for the miracle that had just occurred, but while I heard many mentions of the miraculous, I don’t recall the miraculous being attributed to God.
Being in this accident revealed with greater significance two great truths: 1) God is the protector and sustainer of all things and it is indeed miraculous that no one on this train was killed, but our understanding of the miraculous needs to be redeemed. We need to avoid using the term ‘miracle’ in the generic sense we have become accustomed to. Even as Christians, I find that we sometimes resort to the language of the miraculous with the ability to avoid any mention of God, because we assume that for everyone the idea of the miraculous always alludes to God. The way our culture ascertains the idea of “miracles” seems to more accurately connote an unexplainable interruption of fate, a very impersonal, unforeseen blip within a set of circumstances. Luck. I believe what we can best understand about this incident is not so much that people escaped virtually unharmed (no life threatening injuries apart from the truck driver who did die), but that God prevented harm from reaching them. A miracle, from our perspective, should be viewed as a deliberate intervening of God into our situation. 2) Sin has so corrupted our most basic sensibilities that even when we are in life and death situations, the times it would be easiest to cry out to God for help, we simply struggle to let go of ourselves. The cliché that “there are no atheists in foxholes” doesn’t seem to apply any longer and I think this has much to do with our society’s entrance into a post-Christian era. As this relates to our cultural engagement, our conversations and arguments must be as saturated in prayer as much as they contain logical statements or appeals to emotions. There is no longer a predilection to belief in God and as a result the natural man is clearly more dependent on himself. As “spiritual man” we need to keep this in perspective.