Yep, it’s been awhile. I’ve missed writing, but had no energy to write. Still don’t have a lot. School has been nuts this year. With all the assessments, RTI and trying to become better everyday, it in some ways feels like year one. Throw coaching basketball on top of that and you have one worn out individual. Oh and there is that dad, husband and family thing that I can’t forget about either. But, life is good. REALLY frickin’ good! Just busy.
As I was lesson planning today, I ran across a story I will share with students, in the coming weeks, as part of a narrative unit I teach. Discovering that I no longer had the Word document I proceeded to type the entire thing back onto my computer. As I’m typing, I thought I’d share this with people. This is a story I’ve shared on my various postings, but not in this level of detail.
The writing is nothing brilliant. In some ways I cringe when I read this piece. I think my writing has evolved since writing this in 2005. As I tell my students when I share this with them, this is truthful writing. It’s completely from the heart. In sharing this, it’s what I hope my students strive for in their writing.
This also serves the purpose of building trust in my classroom. In a way, it’s the final rung the process in building trust. I never know how I’ll react when reading this to students. I never know how they’ll react either. But the one thing I think this accomplishes is the building of a community. Whether it’s through design or happenstance, something happens in my classroom after sharing this.
Of Hope and Healing
I would have never imagined that the death of seven high school kids would have had a “positive” impact on my life, but surprisingly it did. Remembering the actual date is difficult, but the events are forever etched in my mind.
If my memory serves me correctly, it was on October 25, 1995 that I received a phone call from the news editor about a possible bus crash in Fox River Grove, Illinois. She said that multiple Flight for Life helicopters were on their way and I should hurry.
But I was really in no hurry because I had experienced this type of “alarmism” before. This editor had a reputation for “calling out all the troops” for what usually amounted to nothing. Plus, I was at my son’s daycare, dropping him off for the day, and he was my main priority. I felt the news could wait.
After a few minutes, I finally left the daycare and stepped outside into a cool October morning. For some unknown reason I looked to the sky. In the distance, to my utter amazement, I saw the familiar orange and blue colors of a Flight for Life helicopter. It was at that point I turned on my police and fire scanner and was confronted by the incessant chatter of rescue workers talking about calling more departments to the railroad crossing in Fox River Grove. I realized that this was real. I had no idea how real it was.
As I jumped in my car, I tried to determine the best route to the accident scene. There was really only one way to get to the crossing from where I was and I knew traffic would be a mess if this was indeed what I imagined. As I left the town neighboring Fox River Grove, I suddenly became ensnarled in a traffic jam. I thought to myself, “What in the world is going on? I’m still a couple of miles from Fox River Grove.”
And then I waited and waited. Minutes passed, which seemed like hours. I was panicked and tried to determine what to do next. The traffic slowly began to inch ahead as I tried to think of an alternative route. On the horizon, I spotted an empty parking lot. Even though the lot was only a few hundred yards ahead, at the pace I was traveling, it might as well have been a hundred miles. Time stood still.
Suddenly, traffic lurched forward and the sluggish journey began. Slowly, but surely, I was moving. Traveling at about 10 to 15 miles per hour, I saw the parking lot near. Then traffic stopped again. I only had about a hundred feet to go. Impatient, I swerved into the opposite lane, watching for oncoming traffic. Luckily, I could see no vehicles as I sped to the parking lot.
I was still about two miles from the accident scene and was left with no choice. It was time to run. And that’s what I did. I ran two miles to the accident scene carrying over 30 pounds of camera gear. What was astonishing was that I was passing cars that were stuck in the same lane of traffic I had just left.
When I finally arrived at the accident scene, I felt a bit foolish. I was sweating and breathing hard. I felt as though I was the last media person to arrive. Luckily nobody noticed, or if they did, they kept their comments to themselves. In retrospect, any wisecracking comments would have been completely inappropriate. What we were witnessing was a disaster.
Normally, accident scenes have an air of controlled chaos. There is usually the sound of victims crying or screaming and rescue workers comforting them. Add to that the sound of equipment operating or the engines of large fire trucks rumbling and you have what amounts to a lot of noise.
But this was different, so completely different. There was no chaos and no audible crying. Instead, there was silence, a deafening silence. Everything was moving in slow motion. You could sense the death as it enveloped the area. This was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. I really wanted to escape. For the first time in my career I felt as if I shouldn’t be witnessing a news scene unfolding. This was too private, too painful.
But I was there and I had to do my job. I forced myself to swallow all of the emotions and proceeded to do what I had always done; take pictures. As I photographed the scene, I could feel the silence overtake my senses. I watched as rescue workers sorted through the wreckage for survivors. They would find no more.
What I do remember is an image that will forever haunt me. As I walked around to find a better angle I heard a tarp flapping in the cool October breeze. Looking toward the bright red tarp, which was fastened between sections of the school bus the children were riding, I saw workers slowly moving about. I took a picture. The rescue workers didn’t seem to be working frantically. In fact, many stood still, looking at the ground. I took another picture. I could only imagine what they were seeing, and I didn’t want to know; yet I knew. I continued to photograph what was before me. Dead silence and sadness were everywhere. It was unbearable and I wanted to leave. I didn’t.
After wedging myself from where I stood, I moved away from the bus. I looked in the distance, across the railroad tracks where the seven children lay dead, and noticed the yellow police tape surrounding the area. Nobody moved. Nobody talked.
Hours passed and I needed to return to the office. I had other photographers at the scene that could continue to do what I didn’t want to do. I found my friend, the news editor. We didn’t speak much and when we did, there was sadness in our words.
She asked where I was parked and I told her it was miles away. She offered me a ride, which I accepted. In the car, we didn’t talk. When we arrived at my car I thanked her and unloaded my gear. On my way to the office I entered what I call “deadline” mode. Urgency emerged with my every thought.
At the office, I went through my normal routine. Film was processed and edits were made. I opted for the picture I can’t shake from my mind, even to this day. The image of workers behind the red tarp was scanned into the system and we proceeded to put the paper “together.” Soon, other photographers arrived from the scene and began the same process I had just completed.
The names of the dead began to trickle into the newsroom. There was a Guzman, a Jeffrey, and a Tiffany Schneider. I can’t tell you the other names, yet I remember them all.
As another photographer approached me with her film, we began to look at what she recorded. I was convinced that we would lead the page with my photograph and was trying to find other art to anchor the rest of the paper. I reviewed hundreds of images. There were negatives everywhere. Everything looked the same; crumpled bus here, rescue worker there.
And then I came across IT. What was going on in this picture? I was looking at a picture of a woman, tears streaking down her face, hands clasped by her chin. She was standing behind the yellow police tape, silently and alone. I questioned the photographer.
What was the woman doing? Was she praying? Why was she praying? Was she a parent? I then asked the question I’ll never forget. What was her name?
The photographer pulled out her reporter’s notebook and ruffled through the notes, finally arriving at the page. She said the name was Schneider. Chills went down my back. I reluctantly asked, “Did she have a child on the bus?”
“Yes, but she didn’t know if her daughter was OK or not,” the photographer replied.
“Her daughter…” I thought. My heart sank. I knew the answer. Her daughter was dead. It was Tiffany.
This was the picture we needed to run. This was the picture we HAD to run. IT said everything. IT begged of hope. IT asked for healing. IT changed my heart.
Stories like this normally “go away” after a few weeks. It’s a never changing cycle. The media covers a story and then moves on. Sometimes a story lasts for days; sometimes it lasts for months. This one fell into the latter. But for me, this story has never ended. It will never end. I won’t let it. I didn’t know it then, but that day would leave an indelible mark and forever change my life. The deaths of those seven children on that morning was not in vain. Not for me.
And I remember…
Jeffery J. Clark · Michael B. Hoffman · Joseph A. Kalte · Shawn P. Robinson · Stephanie Fulham · Susanna Guzman · Tiffany Schneider
Until next time, Peace!