I live in Chattanooga, and I wanted to share with you some of what I witnessed the night of November 21, 2016.
You’ve probably already heard the news and seen the pictures of bus 366, the one that crashed while carrying students home from Woodmore Elelementary. Maybe you were one of many who have shed tears at the thought of not only the loss, but what all involved have gone through. Certainly, the whole accident – everything about it – was certainly a tragedy.
As of this writing 6 young lives were lost due to the crash, and still 5 more fight for their lives at T. C. Thomson Children’s Hospital here in Chattanooga. Some parents are grieving, while others are desperately praying and hoping for the best. And then there are the first responders who worked the scene of the crash, those who had to recover the broken bodies of children: they will have to live the rest of their lives with memories they’d love to forget.
Yes, it was a tragedy, for everyone involved, including the driver and his family. Lest we forget, he will likely go to prison, and then there will be one more child without a father. Tragic.
If you didn’t know, I am a Police Chaplain with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. I have been in this role for about a year, doing what I can to minister to those who put their lives on the line to protect us. Thursday night, November 21st, was the first time I was called upon to offer my help in the middle of a catastrophe.
Like many other chaplains, pastors, and ministers from all over the area, I went to one of the locations where parents, family, friends and neighbors, media, and a host of men and women in uniform were gathered. My job, as it were, was to simply offer the “ministry of presence” to whomever I could. People were grieving, fearful, and angry, so I went to offer whatever help I could, even if it was nothing more than my being there.
What I Witnessed
I can’t begin to describe in this short blog post all the pain and suffering I witnessed in the lobby and waiting rooms where hundreds of distraught family members were gathered. Just think, for every one of the 27 that were taken to the hospital there were multiple family and friends waiting for news – news that was long in coming, for it was difficult to identify children when they had no ID’s and all wore the same school uniform.
The hospital estimated that over 800 people came to the children’s emergency room. That’s a lot of worried, grieving people!
Broken Families. There were so many broken – as in divorced and separated – families at the hospital. This became obvious as many of the parents of the children yelled at each other, either in person (where some had to be physically restrained) or over the phone. One father, obviously not the custodial parent, cursed his child’s mother for not letting him see his child. During a time when a group had gathered in a circle, holding hands in prayer, a mother stood ten feet away screaming into her smartphone: “You ain’t never f****** been there when we f****** needed you, so get your f****** ass down here right f****** now!”
Varying Responses. Different people deal with grief in different ways, and this was never more apparent than on Monday night. Some people would hold each other and silently weep. Others would appear emotionless as they walked around or sat and stared. Others would seem calm for one moment, then break out into wails of, “Not my baby! Not my baby!” There was plenty of anger to go around, so many were already talking of law suits and violence. But a few would explode into rage, putting fists through walls, throwing chairs, running through the rooms at full speed and crashing into glass walls and doors (thankfully, none shattered). People were falling onto the floor, rolling and screaming, fighting off anyone who’d try to calm them down.
Great Professionalism. It’s times like this that bring out the best in people. The police officers, EMT’s, firemen, security personnel, hospital staff, and doctors all did their jobs as true professionals. Even though they were certainly affected by all of this, they not only maintained control of their own emotions, but they compassionately managed the traumatic outbursts of others. Even though the medical staff were completely overwhelmed, I never once saw panic in their expressions – only calm assurance that everything possible was being done. Many, if not all, went above and beyond.
Heartbreaking Hopelessness. Without doubt, the hardest thing for me to witness was the hopelessness of some. Actually, there were more than a few family members who grieved in such a way that I was vividly reminded of the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” Tears came to my own eyes as I listened to cries of loss, the kind of loss that is permanent and hopeless. That was the true tragedy of all this.
What I Learned
I don’t know if I really learned a lot Monday night after the crash, but I was definitely reminded of a a couple of things.
First, coloring is a good thing. Yes, sometimes all one needs is a little distraction in order to deal with trauma. When that distraction is creating something beautiful, all the better.
Secondly, life is short. Again, I might not have learned anything new Thursday night after the crash of bus 366, but I sure was reminded of something: life is short, no matter how long we live. We never know when our lives will end, so there is never a better time to make things right with God than today.
Please say a prayer or two for the families and all those affected by the tragic crash of bus 366, especially on this Thanksgiving Day. Also, the next time you see a school bus driver doing his/her or job well, say something nice – it’s a tough job.