School becomes safe harbor after Philly train derailment

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 Shawn Wright, first-year principal at Webster Elementary school in Kensington (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

Shawn Wright, first-year principal at Webster Elementary school in Kensington (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

Webster Elementary school in Kensington is used to serving those with profound needs. Ninety-seven percent of the children live in poverty. Blighted homes dot the streets surrounding the school. Drug dealers hover in in the shadows of the nearby El train.

Tuesday night, though, the school opened its doors to a very different set of struggles – becoming the first refuge for those involved in the Amtrak train derailment that’s claimed at least seven lives.

Mere moments after the 9:30 p.m. derailment, school officials rushed to open the building, making it a safe harbor for some of the victims of the crash, as well as the Red Cross and the city’s office of emergency management.

At their best, Philadelphia’s neighborhood public schools can be a beacons of communal strength, civic pride and democratic openness – serving all in need.

As the city reeled from the news of Tuesday’s horrific crash, Webster Elementary stood up to that noble challenge.

Scott Ovington, a facilities coordinator with the school district, arrived at Webster shortly after the derailment to oversee the logistics of turning a school into a crisis center.

As injured passengers and worried families members gathered at the school, Ovington said the entire community pitched in to help.

“The neighbors brought out water, juice, stuff for them to eat,” he said. “Sister Linda from the church up the street, she brought down a coffee pot. We made ’em coffee.”

Some of those injured in the nearby train wreck were shuttled via SEPTA buses to the school.

As the night wore on, and the injured were transferred to hospitals, the school became a home base for families whose loved ones were on the train, those who drove in from Maryland or New York – just praying for a shred of good news.

“They were in a real bad way, because they didn’t know where their loved ones were,” said Ovington. “There’s nothing you can say … there’s nothing you can really do. So if they needed something, we got it for them.”

Jim Palmer, a district building engineer, was the first to arrive at the school. He got a call just after 10 p.m. and raced up Frankford Avenue from his house in Fishtown as fast as he could.

“I’m telling you man, it broke my heart,” said Palmer.

One of the family members waiting at Webster feared the worst had happened to his wife, and grew increasingly hopeless as the night went on.

“When he got there, he was very angry, and then he cried a lot. Then he sat and just stared,” said Palmer.

After waiting for hours, the husband left the school in an attempt to search the crash site himself.

“I guess he had decided that he wanted to do what he thought was right by looking for his wife. You can’t knock him for that,” said Palmer, choking back tears.

As the school day began, teachers and staff brought the families breakfast and tried to help the kids have as normal a school day as possible.

“The teaching staff from Webster was phenomenal,” said Ovington. “They brought Dunkin’ Donuts. Coffee. Bagels. Cream cheese.”

Principal Shawn Wright stood in the school yard as kids arrived, explaining what had happened to parents and ensuring that students weren’t startled by all the ambulances assembled nearby.

“It’s very unsettling when they come and see that. ‘What happened? There’s an ambulance right there. What’s going on?'” he said.

Wright hopes the kids are learning a lesson that will serve them well beyond the walls of the classroom.

“We’re offering support, and we’re helping people. We’re helping people in need,” said Wright. “And that’s a good message for the children.”

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