Features

'We all prayed first'

National | Teenage heroes help save lives in Illinois Amtrak crash, but give God all the glory

Issue: "Surviving the Y2K panic," April 3, 1999

in Clinton, Miss. - Christina Bomgaars was standing in the aisle when she felt the first violent jolt and was thrown into a seat in front of her. "I knew we hit something," the 15-year-old recalls, and thought at the time "it wasn't going to be so bad." But then came a second lurch. The lights failed and Christina "could feel us coming off the tracks, tipping over. Luggage was spilling off the racks and the car was shaking too hard for anyone to hold onto anything. As we fell, I wondered if we were over water, or on a bridge, or what-but we wouldn't know until we hit, I thought." What their train had hit was an 18-wheeler loaded with steel; it had derailed the 14-car Amtrak passenger train heading south from Chicago. Christina and 14 of her friends from Covenant Christian High School in Clinton, Miss., were returning home from an annual ski trip to Quebec. The famous "City of New Orleans" train was just outside of Bourbonnais, Ill., at about 9:45 p.m., when it collided with the truck driven by 58-year-old John Stokes. In that fiery derailment, 11 people died (though none from Christina's group) and more than 100 were injured. For everyone in the group, this was a time to put faith into action. Several of the boys, in particular, are credited with thinking and acting quickly, and saving lives by getting people out of the car before it caught fire. Michael Freeman, a clean-cut 17-year-old with a matter-of-fact expression and a dry wit, remembers sitting up when the first jolt occurred, "just listening." The screams bothered him. "People were panicking, and that's just not good business when you're in a train wreck." He doesn't remember falling, though he found himself on the bottom of the overturned car. "We all prayed first," he said. "And I was thinking, that's a good idea right now." Michael searched for the emergency exits, but outside one he noticed what he thought were power lines were touching the train tracks. "We decided that ... one wasn't a viable exit, so we went to the top one," he says. Michael climbed out and, from there with the help of Jeffrey Sartor and Caleb McNair, both 17, inside the train, assisted others out of the wreckage. "We had to work quickly." Anna Fulghum, 17, was one of the first out of the car, through an emergency door opened by the Covenant boys. The door was now at the top of the overturned rail car, and as Anna climbed through, she could see the other cars, strewn about the field. One was on fire. "I put my head back in and told everyone to pray for the people in that car," she said. "I thought ... they were dying." Shadia Slaieh, also 17, was in the bathroom when "the train started shaking, then it went black ... and I felt it tip over ... well, I started screaming, 'please help me!'" And God did, she says. "I didn't know, but Mrs. Bell was there," Shadia says. "I was so scared, I couldn't think. I could hear people yelling 'fire,' and for some reason I thought we were in the water. But Mrs. Bell talked to me, told me it was going to be okay." Dolories Bell, a chaperone and the mother of one of the other passengers, had been washing her face. (Bathrooms on a train are something like those on an airplane, but with several in a row and a separate, open area with sinks.) The bathroom stalls had accordioned, crushing many of the doors closed. Mrs. Bell told Shadia to see if hers would open. "She told me to feel for the handle," Shadia said. "But it was so black and I was so scared-and then there was a flash of light." Turns out it was her Timex Indiglo watch-the same kind Mrs. Bell wore. Her door wouldn't open, but those watches provided enough light for Mrs. Bell to see a gap, where she could reach in and clasp Shadia's hand while they awaited a rescuer. Meanwhile, the boys had to decide whether to move 13-year-old Suzanne Cole, whose back was clearly seriously injured (she had already thrown up twice), and what to do about an older woman whose shoulder was broken. The car next to theirs was aflame, and diesel fuel covered the ground around them. The older woman could neither climb out, nor be pulled up through that top exit. The boys weighed the risks and decided to move the older woman out the bottom exit, despite the possibility of power lines, and to chance moving Suzanne out of the car and away from the flames. After helping people through the exits, Caleb worked his way toward the bathrooms of the double-decker car, looking for Shadia: "When I got to that area, I heard Mrs. Bell, and I used her watch to look around. I could see the ceiling was collapsed onto Shadia's door. I didn't want to tell her that, so I just held her hand through that gap." Then he began to hear a group of older women on the other side of the car. He went to investigate. He helped them up, and by this time rescue workers had arrived and were able to help him lift the ladies out of the car. One policeman found a crowbar and managed to pry Shadia's door open, freeing her. Hours later, sitting in a van with his bare feet in front of the heater, Caleb took his turn calling his mother on a rescue worker's cell phone: "When I told her what had happened, she said she had been praying for us at that moment. So she didn't seem upset-she was trusting that God was taking care of us." The only serious injury to the students was Suzanne's broken back. She will have pins in her back permanently, but there was no spinal cord or nerve damage, reports her father, a general surgeon in Clinton. Phyllis Hurley, who has organized and led the ski trip for the last 10 years and is principal of the elementary school where most of the kids got started, is clearly proud of these students. So is her husband Jim, also an educator. "Most of these kids have been going [to school] here since kindergarten," says Mr. Hurley, a department chair at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. "We've seen them grow up, goof around, everything. You try to teach values and character, but you wonder. When the fat hits the fire, just what do we have? Well, what we have here are some pretty impressive kids. They went way beyond what you would expect from high school juniors. Their actions have brought glory to God."

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