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Strangers on a Train Bond Tightly After Illinois Crash

Friendships: 'Whether you like it or not, you're family now,' said one passenger to a volunteer rescue worker. That seems to sum up the attitude of those involved.

May 09, 1999|TARA BURGHART | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Bob Curwick crouched in the crumpled, burning dining car, in heat so intense that his rubber gloves started to melt.

A few feet away, barely lighted by the flickering orange glow of the flames, he could see panic in the faces of Susan Falls and her teenage daughter, Jennifer.

They had been strangers only moments before. Now, as they talked about their homes and their families, they shared the same fearful question: Were their lives about to end?

"If you die, I'm going to die with you," Curwick told the women, "and I'm too ornery to die."

Susan and Jennifer were there by chance, passengers on Amtrak's City of New Orleans when it slammed into a steel-laden semitrailer. Curwick was there by choice--one of 30 steelworkers at a nearby factory who heard the crash and came running to help.

In this terrifying moment, a friendship was born.

"Whether you like it or not, you're family now," Susan Falls would tell Curwick later, when he visited mother and daughter in the hospital.

It is that way for the survivors of the wreck, and for the people of this place that calls itself "The Friendly Village." In the weeks since they were brought together so abruptly, it has become clear: They are joined forever.

The Amtrak train's 200 passengers never meant to stop here; had the truck not driven into the train's path, they would have whizzed by this once-rural village of 16,000.

But at 9:47 p.m. March 15, their voyage ended here. Eleven died, more than 100 were injured, and Bourbonnais became a place of refuge and succor.

The Farm and Fleet store manager cleared space for a makeshift triage room, right next to the lawn mowers and the customer service desk.

Hotel managers turned away business to take in passengers; one drove an elderly couple to Wal-Mart to buy shoes, toothbrushes and medicine.

A teacher comforted a man desperately searching for his mother. The coroner learned to recognize the voice on the phone of a father whose two daughters died in the sleeping car. A pastor found an example of true faith in a family he was supposed to counsel.

And a photographer's wife made a connection with a dazed, injured woman--even if she will never know her name. Lori Ann Grzelak cannot stop thinking of the elderly woman with a back injury, a pink blanket draped around her.

"I wondered who she was? What happened to her? Did she lose somebody? Was she able to go home?" Grzelak said. "Her eyes. I'll never forget this hurting--like watching a zombie."

Cindy and Rich McBarnes, along with their 24-year-old daughter, Erin, set up cots, poured coffee and wrote down names at the school where passengers were brought from the crash site.

Rich remembers a couple who came in wearing hospital scrubs and booties, holding three children wrapped in blankets. Each child had been stitched up.

Cindy was struck by the plight of a woman with an injured back who snuggled with her two little boys. Eventually, the woman had to go to the hospital and trust a volunteer to care for her sons at a hotel.

And Erin remembers the man who was desperately searching for his mother, first calling Amtrak, then the hotels, then the hospitals, repeating the routine all night. The next day, Erin, a teacher like her parents, learned his mother had died in the crash.

"You remember those people, and there are faces you'll never forget. Those frantic faces," Erin said.

Jim Orrison deals with death every day as the Kankakee County coroner and a former funeral director.

"When I started seeing their pictures on television, I started having more of a realization that these were real people," Orrison said. "I've dealt with death all my adult life. These people were strangers to me until I started seeing their pictures. That kind of puts it home to you."

Now he's so close to the victims' families that they're on a first-name basis when they call to check on the status of the coroner's inquest.

The Rev. Paul Mount of the Bethel Baptist Church in Bourbonnais helped counsel families of those who died.

He was awed by the faith of the Lipscomb family, who lost two young daughters, a family friend and the friend's granddaughter. Rather than talk about anger at God, the Lipscombs discussed their belief that God will see them through the dark days and months ahead.

"To see people like that--their faith is really not just for the good times but faith for all time.

"That doesn't mean they don't hurt. That doesn't mean they don't grieve. That doesn't mean they're not going to have hard days ahead. That doesn't mean they will go around with a smile on their face all the time," Mount said. "It does mean they go around with peace in their heart."

In the weeks since the crash, life has mostly returned to normal here.

Residents are curious as to whether the driver of the truck will be charged with any crime, but there is no thirst for vengeance.

Susan Falls invited Bob Curwick to visit the family in Mississippi this summer, and he's considering it.

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