This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
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 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 eight 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 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 the school into a crisis center.
As injured passengers and worried family 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.