By Kathy Berken
For one harrowing hour that Monday, we didn’t know whether my 15-year-old grandson Isaac was alive or dead following news that the Amtrak train he was on had crashed near a small Missouri town on its way to Chicago.
Isaac Berken was one of 16 Boy Scouts and eight leaders on their way home to Appleton, Wisconsin, on June 27, after spending a week at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. The train carrying almost 300 passengers struck a dump truck on an unmarked crossing and derailed, causing all eight of its cars to flip onto their sides. Four people were killed, including the truck driver, and almost half of the passengers were injured, many taken to nearby hospitals.
Despite being thrown from his seat onto the side of the train car and suffering a moment of shock, Isaac told me that he got himself together and assessed the situation. His training as a Boy Scout, plus his natural inclination to help, brought him to his feet. He, along with other Scouts and some passengers, went to work. “Once I personally made sure everyone was OK, I just started walking from car to car, assisting in any way I could,” he said. “Perhaps putting a neck brace on someone or comforting people.”
He lost his phone in the crash and could not contact his parents right away. The first news that my son Aaron and daughter-in-law Sarah got was from a Scout leader who simply texted parents that their train had crashed. “There was a lot of unknown in the first hour or two,” Aaron said. “Even once we found out that Isaac was OK, (we wondered) were the others from the group OK, too? Then we found out about all the help they provided and I couldn’t be more proud. To them it was no big deal, just what you are supposed to do. But as a parent, it was a way to see their true character in a situation like that.”
“It was very scary, a phone call I never expected to get,” Sarah said. “To think I was worried about the train being delayed! When I couldn’t get hold of Isaac, my mind went to the worst possible thoughts. It was one of the most terrifying hours of my life, making me realize how precious life is, and how it could be taken away in a flash.”
Isaac helped people off the train, gave them water and a comforting shoulder or a hand to hold, in addition to pushing open (now facing up) the large, heavy windows, but he does not want to be called a hero. “Wouldn’t you do the same thing?” he asked me. I said that we label people as heroes but seldom do they want to be recognized for doing what is simply the right thing.
Although he assisted many passengers emotionally and physically, one he could not. He found a woman lying outside the train, half covered in dirt. “She was dead,” Isaac said, “and I found a blanket to cover her.” He is a compassionate helper at his core.
When the late Mr. Fred Rogers told his young listeners about tragedies, he famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
I respect Isaac’s wish to be called a helper rather than a hero. “When that train hit, no one cared about personal belongings, luggage or any of that stuff. Everyone was caring about human lives and injuries and first aid,” Isaac said. “It shows the priorities of the good people on that train.”
Need I say more? “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25: 40).
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)