When tragedy strikes, we often see what people are really made of: courage, faith, and love for fellow man.
Tom Baker—a doctor at the Walter Reed military hospital—was headed for the gym after a busy day at work. Dave Bottoms, a Walter Reed chaplain, was on his way home from his first day on the job. Both men were riding a Washington D.C. Metro transit train—Car 1079, part of the Red Line.
Three minutes later, their lives were shattered by the worst accident in Metro history. Nine people were killed, 76 were injured. Both Bottoms and Baker survived. But instead of running to safety, they demonstrated an heroic commitment to their fellow passengers.
The Washington Post described what happened in a vivid article titled “Three Minutes to Fort Totten.” As the train approached the Fort Totten station, passengers heard “a shrieking crunch of metal.” Car 1079 smashed at high speed into another Metro car.
In the chaotic aftermath, wounded and terrified passengers began to scream. Worst of all was the screaming of a badly injured young mother, trapped beneath the wreckage. “Please don’t leave me,” she cried.
Chaplain Bottoms crawled over jagged glass and metal toward the voice. He feared his weight might shift the wreckage and cause more injuries. But as the Post put it, “Two tours as a chaplain in Iraq had instilled in him the instinct to comfort the injured and dying.” Bottoms recalled the words of a military mentor: “You don’t let anyone suffer alone.”
Another passenger broke a train window; many commuters climbed out. Meanwhile, beneath the rubble, the terrified woman, whose name was LaVonda King, again begged, “Please don’t go.”
Bottoms responded, “I’m staying.” He leaned as close as he could to the buried woman, and said, “We can pray.”
“Okay,” she replied. Bottoms began to recite the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” He continued to comfort LaVonda. But soon, she stopped responding.
Meanwhile, Dr. Baker had also stayed on the train. He did his best to comfort a 15-year-old boy trapped in the rubble. Baker did not leave until after firefighters had freed the boy. Chaplain Bottoms stayed with LaVonda while rescue workers uncovered her. Tragically, they could not save her.
“Three Minutes to Fort Totten” makes for riveting reading. But I hope readers pause to ask themselves why, among all the survivors on Train 1079, the two who stayed to help the wounded were both military men—one of them a chaplain.
It doesn’t surprise me. The U.S. military is one of the last places in our culture that teaches men and women to put the needs of others ahead of their own—even at the risk of their own lives.
Second, our military has a strong Christian presence. Perhaps this is why, during Metro’s terrible accident, it was two military officers, including a chaplain, who instinctively acted out the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Interestingly, at the moment of the crash, Chaplain Bottoms was reading a homily by St. Irenaeus, one of the great defenders of Christian orthodoxy.
Does worldview matter? “Three Minutes to Fort Totten” provides a moving answer: Yes, it does.
FURTHER READING AND INFORMATION
Eli Saslow, “Three Minutes to Fort Totten,” Washington Post, 28 June 2009.
Terry Mattingly, “A Chaplain in the Right Place,” GetReligion, 1 July 2009.