Selflessness Amid Tragedy Offers Solace

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Before one Metro train crashed into another Monday, I was in a state of angst. The three whiners inside my head were at it again: Me, Myself and I.

My groceries cost too much. If I want to get something done, I have to do it myself. My housing bubble burst. I got stuck behind a slow driver in the fast lane. My life has been derailed. And on and on.

Even my initial reaction to the fatal crash -- I could have been on that train -- was little more than a self-obsessed "lucky me" masquerading as gratitude.

Thankfully, sorrowfully, that began to change as I watched and read news accounts of people who were actually caring more about others than themselves.

Perhaps you know the feeling -- the uplifted spirit that comes as firefighters, medics, police officers and everyday people place their safety at risk in a rush to aid the injured.

One train had rear-ended another in Northeast Washington, injuring 80 and killing nine. And yet I felt reassured, if ever so briefly, that all would be well, despite the images of crumbled cars and wounded people under bloodstained sheets.

We speak of having heavy hearts in the wake of such tragedy, but that is a shared weight, unlike the crushing burden of self-obsession that must be borne alone.

Even D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who has become somewhat arrogant and aloof of late, managed to show glimmers of the empathy that helped get him elected. "If you were someone on the train, that was an unbelievable nightmare," he said, sounding sincere for a change. "It must have been the worst thing in the world."

It is ironic that public tragedy seems to bring out the best in us, making us more aware of our profound capacity for sacrifice and compassion.

I saw Michael Cochran, 39, on TV describing his efforts to help an injured passenger. He had been on the train that was struck from behind.

"I basically climbed out of the rear car and onto the tracks to help a woman who had been thrown from the train," he said. "I just tried to apply direct pressure to the wound and keep her calm."

Then he added, "About half a dozen others were taking measures to do the same."

Unsung heroes -- they were on the train. And for that I could be truly grateful.

Another passenger who walked away unharmed had not been able to muster such courage. He told a reporter for WRC-TV: "Nobody wanted to go towards the front, because the people you saw in the train were crying and nobody wanted to go there."

Some do tremble in the face of tragedy. But we need only remember that fear can be a humbling emotion. If anything, it should make us appreciate bravery even more.

Unfortunately, such moments don't last long enough. The hunt for culprits is underway. The blame game has begun. Let's play hardball. Someone asked a Metro official whether the crash had been caused by the "inexperienced woman driver." Another wanted to know whether she had been distracted, "texting" perhaps, like the driver of the commuter train that crashed and killed 25 people in California last year.

Would it be possible to hold off the animus and incrimination, at least until after the funerals?

Not likely. Complaints about inconveniences caused by the crash have already begun. Road and track closures have made my commute a mess. I can't get to work on time. My car is on empty. I will lose my job. O, woe is me.

We might express sincere sorrow about the loss of life in what has come to sound too much like a boast: "the worst accident in Metro's 33-year history." But then we get in our cars and resume driving like bats out of hell.

"Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased, and we wish those who were injured a speedy recovery," a Metro spokesman said yesterday.

Maybe it's just me. But if sending out our hearts, thoughts and prayers can create peace and solace, perhaps we should try it more often.


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