At home on his couch at about 8 AM on Sunday, April 3, the Rev. James Ford, pastor of Trainer UMC, near Chester, Pa., was quietly finishing his sermon when he suddenly heard blaring sirens arriving at the nearby church. They signaled an emergency that would soon open the doors of the church in a whole new way.
Moments earlier Amtrak Palmetto Train 89 from New York to Savannah, Ga., rumbling at 106 mph, had only seconds to brake before it crashed into a backhoe construction truck inexplicably parked on its track, killing two workers and injuring 35 train passengers. The brutal collision ignited flames inside passenger cars and damaged the front of the locomotive, sending debris airborne.
The train came to a stop across a small field from Trainer UMC. Amid the smoke and dust, passengers deboarded carrying their luggage, as emergency service personnel arrived to help them.
“It was a surreal experience,” recalled Pastor Ford on Monday. “Thirty feet away I heard all this commotion with ambulance sirens coming from both directions and stopping near the church. I looked out the window and thought the church must be on fire.”
When he ran over, first-responder emergency workers told him there were “mass casualties.” They asked if they could use the church as a refuge for passengers while they took the injured to local hospitals. He ushered them into the church’s first-floor gymnasium, as some went upstairs into the sanctuary to rest, find warmth and pray.
“We must have had well over 300 people in the gym and adjoining rooms and some in the sanctuary,” Ford said. “It was a blessing that they didn’t have to walk far, especially in the wind and cold, because many of them weren’t attired for cold weather.
“There was a tremendous response to the accident from everywhere,” Ford remembered, his amazement still lingering. “From Amtrak’s Emergency Management Service, the Trainer and Chester police departments and fire and rescue teams, the National Transportation Safety Board, SEPTA that sent buses to take people to the (Philadelphia) 30th Street Station and the American Red Cross Spiritual Care team who brought food from the local Wawa store and talked to people to keep them calm.”
The response from his two small congregations was no less impressive. The 10:45 AM service at Trainer was cancelled and members were notified via their “telephone tree” emergency call system. But worship became “workship” instead for about a dozen members who came to provide hospitality to their unexpected guests.
Lay leaders at Ford’s other congregation, historic Trinity UMC in Chester (est. 1865), told him to stay where God needed him to be and they would handle their 9:45 AM worship service on their own. Some came over to Trainer’s gym later to help. Lay Leader Eleanor Grant brought the church’s digital hymnal, plugged it into an amplifier and played hymns to help heal the tension of guests waiting to be picked up.
“We had to wait there awhile for people to make contact with their families and friends and arrange rides,” said Ford, still exhausted on Monday morning. “It was 7 PM by the time we were able to close the church and go home.”
Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland had nothing but praise for the church’s hospitality. “I want to take my hat off to the pastor and the members of Trainer United Methodist Church,” he said during a later press conference. “They were a tremendous help. When the train stopped, Trainer United Methodist Church immediately opened their doors. They assisted people on the train, the media, personnel, and first responders. They were extremely helpful during a difficult time.”
Ford said the church is praying for the two local families who lost loved ones in the crash. He didn’t get to preach his sermon on Sunday. He titled it “The Lord’s Friends,” based on John 15, when Jesus regards his disciples as close friends and as branches growing out of him, “the true vine.”
But in both churches’ demonstration of welcoming hospitality and grace that day, perhaps the word became flesh for those in need, who would rather see a sermon than hear one.
By John W. Coleman
Eastern PA Conference Communications Director
Dear Rev Jimbo,
I would like to sincerely express my appreciation for you and your congregation’s aid on this past Sunday. I truly thank you all for helping to provide us with shelter, smiles and warm hugs on that day. I have returned home safely and again, just wanted to express my thanks.
With love and faith,
Sanford North Carolina
See a CBS local TV news report on the Amtrak crash, including an interview with the Rev. James Ford, pastor of Trainer and Trinity UMCs. Also, view a News Journal video interview with Sandy Hulton, a lay member of Trainer UMC, who recounts how the church served Amtrak passengers.
Also see what a Delaware County Daily Times editorial said about the much-appreciated hospitality Trainer and Trinity UMCs offered to the Amtrak crash survivors in Editorial: Delco opened its arms to train wreck victims:
While the collision occurred in Chester, the engineer was not able to bring the train to a halt until it rolled into Trainer. In a way, that was fortunate. That put passengers within walking distance of the Trainer United Methodist Church on Ninth Street.
It did not take long for the members there to put their faith into action. After trudging through a small patch of woods, crossing a creek and traversing a muddy field, more than 200 battered and emotionally distraught passengers from Amtrak Train 89 emerged into the welcome arms of the local church.
The passengers were about to learn something most people around here have known for a long time. It is not unusual for Delco folks to open their arms – and their hearts – in time of need.
Trainer United Methodist member Michelle Carpenter was already on her way to the church to prepare for Sunday school and morning worship services when she realized something had happened.
Emergency officials responding to the Amtrak crash quickly identified the church as the closest spot to offer shelter and help for those on the train.
Soon the church was full — passengers, emergency responders and local officials, including Mayor Frances Zalewski.
“This place swarmed with people coming to the passengers’ aid,” said Marie Bowman, the church’s administrative board spokeswoman. They were quickly joined in offering aid by members of their sister church, Trinity United Methodist in Chester.
Members of both congregations bought snacks, juice and coffee to add to the donations arriving from the Red Cross for the dazed, confused passengers.
Members engaged several young passengers in arts and craft projects to keep their minds off the events that had just occurred.
Federal probers will no doubt get to the bottom of what happened on the train tracks in Chester early Sunday. It appears human error played a key role.
What happened in the minutes and hours later one town down was clearly an act of God, working through the hands of the good people of Trainer United Methodist Church.