Grieving parents said the things they always say when awful things happen on beautiful blue-sky days: “I put him on the bus and sent him to school. He was supposed to be safe.” Over the days and weeks that followed, we mourned at vigils, wakes, and funerals. Even the most stoic among us wept openly. We felt broken, yet united in our brokenness. Our lives had split into a before and an after, and the after was a dreamlike place of disorder and fear and there didn’t seem to be any way out.
Weeks passed. My classmates and I startled at the noises that reminded us of that day. Teachers rearranged classrooms so the empty desks weren’t a constant reminder, but we thought of our friends and the way they died constantly. The injured and the siblings of the dead finally returned to school. We were learning to live with loss. In the after, we were a community that this awful thing had happened to.
Months passed. I was the senior responsible for the layout of the memorial page in the yearbook. My class graduated and the school granted a posthumous diploma to the lone senior who’d died. By then, shock and raw pain had compressed into anger and more unanswered questions. Why did this happen? What went wrong? Who could we blame? Investigations, we learned, were still ongoing.
The following fall on an idyllic college campus still living in the before world, I wrote a few of Emily Webb’s closing lines from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town on my dorm room’s whiteboard to commemorate the anniversary. (“Just for a moment now we’re all together. Just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!”) Days later, the government answered our gut-punching questions in the form of an official report. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune about the investigation and its findings, a federal official said, “We teach our kids to learn the importance of accountability. In this accident, there was a failure of accountability by a number of organizations.”
Then, for our high-school community, and communities around the country, things changed. Public policy changed. All to prevent a similar tragedy from happening to another group of kids.
Things changed because my classmates hadn’t been murdered by a gunman at school. They died when an express commuter train struck their school bus, ripping the cabin from the chassis and rocketing young bodies onto the ground.
Things changed because our tragedy was not the tragedy of 17 killed at Stoneman Douglas, or 32 at Virginia Tech, or 26 at Sandy Hook, or 13 at Columbine. It didn’t take nearly that many.
It took one train, one bus, seven dead teens, two dozen injured students, and one thorough investigation.
And just one year later, the National Transportation Safety Board made 29 recommendations to 16 organizations ranging from the local school district’s bus company to the U.S. secretary of transportation. Changes in communication between agencies, to engineering and training practices, and more were all implemented. In response to our tragedy, the government changed the rules to keep us safer.