by Warren Baldwin, minister, Ulysses, Kan., church
Today at about 12:30 noon I was typing notes on Psalm 109 for my term paper for Harding University Graduate School of Religion, when the phone rang. I was expecting my wife Cheryl to call and say she was home for lunch and I was to go join her. Instead, it was the high school saying there was an accident and they wanted all the ministers to come to the high school.
I called Cheryl and said I couldn’t meet her for lunch because the high school wanted the ministers. She asked, “Did you hear what happened? A semi hit a car full of high school kids during the lunch hour. There is at least one dead. Please go find out if Kristin (our 15-year old freshman) is at the school.”
At the school I learned three high school kids were killed, one was severally critical and one would probably be OK. (I’ve also heard she was critical). They were all sophomore girls. I asked a secretary, “Is Kristin here?” She sent a runner to her class and came back and told me she was in class.
The school wanted ministers because they were going to announce what happened to the student body and wanted us there to help counsel, answer questions, etc.
Then the hospital called and wanted us down there so we left for the hospital. Even though the accident had occurred 45 minutes or so earlier, there was still mayhem. Rescue workers were crying, doctors were crying, family members were crying, ministers were crying.
I went to one set of parents, Randy and Denise. Their daughter Tori was still alive with massive head trauma. Tori played softball and basketball with my younger daughter, and her older sister is one of my older daughter’s (Jenny, at Harding) best friends. We could hear Tori moaning and crying from her bed. I prayed with the parents in the hallway. When I said, “Lord, my girls are friends with their girls …,” I lost it.
Then a girl from church came in. One of the dead girls was her first cousin. She was also a friend of my daughters.
I went to an EMT who had been crying. I asked if he was OK. He said he worked at the scene picking the girls up. Then he said, “Tori is my niece.”
This is a small town of 5,000 people. Everybody knows each other. The people that come in on stretchers are often friends and family.
We went back to the high school, and they announced the accident over the intercom. They didn’t bring all the students out because they thought it would be mayhem. They were right. They announced the deaths and said any students that wanted could come out into the Commons (cafeteria) to talk to ministers, counselors, etc.
I was actually in a classroom of one of the students who died when the announcement was made. A student in the class said, “What about Tori?” She was in the class but her name was not announced because she was alive – airlifted to Amarillo, Tex.
Fifteen minutes later they announced that Tori had died in Amarillo. That meant four students killed in one wreck.
It was mayhem in the Commons. Kids were crying. One girl from our congregation sat beside me to talk. She said, “I feel so bad. I feel bad for them dying. But I also feel bad because I hated one of those girls. We tried to be friends several times but it didn’t work. I feel so guilty.”
My daughter came out to see if I was there with the other ministers. She looked confused. I just hugged her and cried.
One emotionally unstable boy I have worked with from the community started shouting, throwing a chair and pounding a table. Courtney, a best friend of Tori’s, came up to me and said, “I drove by the scene when the bodies were still lying in the road.” I would say she was close to shock.
I have been through one tornado and two floods, but I have never seen such massive disorientation.
In his lecture on “Preaching as Disorientation,” Fred Craddock talks about how a Native American newspaper columnist responded to the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. She wrote in her column, “I have nothing to write today. I have nothing to say today. I just go around my house and say, ‘Oooh.'”
That is the language of disorientation.
That is how I feel now. Actually, two thoughts kept going through my mind as I sat in the Commons watching the delirium. One, I never want to be in a position to cause this kind of suffering for anyone. It may be that at times a government official must declare war. I now realize that I could not be that person. I would not want to cause even one innocent person this level of suffering.
Two, my mind kept saying, “The Psalms, The Psalms.” I tried to think of a specific psalm to fit the situation but none came. But the whole book came to my mind, over and over, “The Psalms, The Psalms.”
I hold up the names of the four kids who died for you to be praying for their families: Julie, Meranda, Veronica, and Tori. I hold up the name of the girl who was the driver, in critical condition: Jennifer. And I hold up the truck driver (I have forgotten his name) who is not to blame for this but will carry tremendous pain in his heart. The driver works for a Christian in Colorado so I hope he will have good support.
Sometimes this semester I have wondered why, at my age and with my schedule, I am taking a graduate class. Now I know. “The Psalms. The Psalms.”