Friday, March 02, 2007

Tornados and other tragedies: the accidental death of young people

Yesterday I wrote about those who purposely place children’s lives in jeopardy in war.

But children and young people also die accidently, and not only in war. Witness the twin tragedies two schools have just endured.

This morning a bus carrying the baseball team from Mennonite-affiliated Bluffton University in Ohio fell off a bridge, killing four students as well as the bus driver and his wife. And yesterday in Enterprise, Alabama, the high school roof was torn off in a direct hit by a tornado, killing eight students.

The accidental deaths of young people are always tragic, but they usually occur in a seemingly random fashion—a family is hit here, a family is hit there. But with the bus crash of a college team and the collapse of a school buidling, each institution must deal with an especially heartrending group event: the death of a number of young people at one time in a single community. And if there are opportunities for extra support because nearly everyone in that group is bereft of someone known and loved, there are also opportunities for the deepest of grief and the most anguished of questions: why?

Why us, why now, why these particular young people?

Those who are deeply religious answer one way, rationalists answer another. Thornton Wilder gave it a go in his Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of those books that used to be required reading in high schools across the land but probably aren’t any more.

I’m not going to attempt an answer; I don’t have one. But hearing about these events conjured up memories for me--in particular, the first time I ever heard of tornados.

I was very young, perhaps six years old. While watching TV one Saturday morning I saw something on the screen that caught my eye--a bunch of children laughing uproariously at a puppet show. Alone at the time, I sat down to watch, and as the plot progressed (was it a movie? a made-for-TV special? a documentary?), scenes of the laughing children were interspersed with shots of an ominous and darkening sky.

And then, in the middle of it all--boom! What turned out to be a tornado hit those happy children, killing them.

I'd experienced some tragic deaths already in my family, and perhaps that's why this program affected me so deeply. But this was the first time I was made aware of mass tragedy, and especially one involving children. The Pied Piper had made me deeply uneasy, with his luring the children of an entire town to disappear into the side of a mountain. But that was a fairy tale--and, what's more, who's to say what the children found there? Maybe they really experienced the wonderful visions the Piper had promised.

But this was different. This was no fairy tale; even though it was TV, I felt it to be real. And for some time--it seemed nearly forever, but it was probably only a couple of days, if that--I walked around gazing at the cloudy skies and wondering when the tornado would strike. The sensation was particulary vivid in school, when I looked out the window.

A teacher in whom I finally confided dispelled those thoughts by telling me in no uncertain terms, "Nothing to worry about; we don't have tornados here." And, although that turned out not to be true (as a six-year-old I didn't have Google handy to invalidate what she'd said), I breathed a sigh of relief. I was safe.

But the thought of those other children struck down in the midst of laughter remained with me, somewhere deep inside.

Such events are distinguished by their accidental and random, rather than intentional, nature. They are so-called “acts of God” (a term I dislike, not because of its religiousity but because of the image it conveys of a deity purposely wreaking havoc) as differentiated from “purposeful acts of human beings.” Nature’s fury is one thing (although, again, “fury” indicates a malevolence for which there is no evidence whatsoever), human error and/or accident is another. But both are very different from the sort of human malevolence that causes mass murder.

In that sense we can say that another tragedy (although with greater loss of life), the blasting of Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was in some ways similar to the Ohio bus crash and the Alabama tornado (or even that puppet show tornado of so long ago)--but very different in others. It is sometimes forgotten, in the much greater loss of life the Lockerbie incident involved, that thirty-five of those killed on that flight were students from a single college, Syracuse University, returning home for Christmas vacation from time spent abroad.

I vividly recall the news of the Lockerbie explosion. And later, when it was clearly determined that it was the purposeful act of terrorists--and even though I had no special interest in terrorism and no special knowledge of it at the time--the crash seemed an ominous sign of the ever-increasing ruthlessness and scope of terrorist aims.

Although all the Lockerbie deaths were horrible, amidst the general shock and mourning the deaths of the students felt especially horrific to me. Their parents’ grief seemed nearly unendurable--even when glimpsed for only a few brief moments on television.

To this day, nearly twenty years later, Syracuse holds an annual service in honor of its dead students. There’s a somber memorial there as well; I’ve been to it, while visiting a nephew who attended the school.

Time passes, and although they say it heals all wounds, I don’t think these particular wounds really heal at all; they just become less raw. My heart goes out to all who mourn--today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

[For posts on a related topic, see this and this, my series on grieving parents in war.]

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