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A Miracle On White Street

A catastrophe was just feet either way at the Butler School Friday. Why didn't it happen?

What is a miracle?  

Is it an event filled with wonder that defies the laws of nature? Is it an act of Grace from some divinity? Or is it merely the avoidance of calamity; a bullet that misses the mark?

It was the last day of school at the Butler Elementary School on White Street. The morning bustle was in progress as parents and kids were arriving in droves. There was an excited energy in the air as people juggled gift bags, cards, and flowers, all the while snapping pictures with their cell phones.

My second grader, Christina, had just joined her class's line. The bell sounded and the children began to enter the building.

I turned to wave goodbye to Christina when, at that moment, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what appeared to be an airborne object careening toward the school.

My brain had not yet registered what my eyes where seeing when I heard the hair-raising sound of two tons of metal hitting a chain link fence and asphalt at an unnaturally high speed.

There was a collective gasp from the parents, and I felt myself go weak at the knees.

The unthinkable had occurred; a vehicle had crashed into the Butler during the morning student drop off.

The children that were not yet inside the building edged toward the accident scene. They were immediately and calmly redirected into the building by a quick-thinking teacher.

I turned toward the wreckage, turned back toward my daughter's line, and spotted our principal, Mike McAllister, sprinting toward the scene.

As he approached the car to check on its inhabitants, my mind started to race. Calmness evaded me and I was flooded with images of those in this Butler community whom I encounter daily as we walk through the very spot where the car had just violently landed.

My daughter and I had crossed there only a moment earlier, but where are Ed and the girls?  Where are Raffi and the boys? Where's Rowan? Where's Patricia? Have Natalie, Gabby and Kathleen arrived?

I began to weep and pray and shake all at the same time.

Those in the car, two children and two adults, were uninjured. In fact, one of them, a second grader who was a classmate of my daughter, simply jumped out of the car and dashed into the building.

Then one of our parents, who happened to be an ER nurse, turned to McAllister.  

"We'll have to look under the car," she said.

The result: nothing.

There were kids and parents to the left and to the right of the accident. But the spot where the car tore in was clear. No one was hurt.

A miracle? Then if so, what is a miracle?

"God was looking down on the Butler this morning," one of the parents said as we started dispersing from the Butler playground.

Well, maybe, I thought. But wouldn't it have been less traumatic for God to have controlled the driver's footwork where the gas pedal and brake are concerned? Is a miracle a divine intervention only after the horrible has first occurred?

Then I thought, perhaps a miracle is simply 'sheer dumb luck'? That a car could lose control and tear into a school yard with people everywhere and the result is no one inside or outside the car is hurt is nothing less than stunning. It defies the odds. But is that a miracle?

Like many others, I remain shaken to the core by this event, in spite of the fortunate outcome. There is no tragedy to process, yet my brain keeps jumping to the horrifying 'what ifs'?  

What if any of us had been seconds earlier or later in our journey to school that morning. What if the car had veered slightly to the left or right. What if Mike McAllister had been standing where he often stands ...

My ruminations are scattered, yet I keep coming back to the fact that we are really all at risk all of the time. So much is out of our control. So much lies in the hands of the Divine. Or, in the clutches of sheer dumb luck.

Was it a miracle? I don't know. All I do know is that there was no last-day-of-school catastrophe at the Butler Friday morning.

Nevertheless, I am not comforted, but rather filled with a mix of relief, awe and disquietude.

Later that day, my husband pointed out a headline to me: "RI woman killed after car jumps curb."

Not everyone gets a miracle.

Martha Brown June 21, 2011 at 05:06 PM
Ugh... you've captured the emotions surrounding this event really well, Lisa.
Tracy Geary June 22, 2011 at 01:54 PM
Great article, Lisa. I like that you do more than simply relate the experience but question the bigger questions it raises. In any case, I am thankful that no one was hurt. The same thing happened in the town next to us a few years ago and it did not have a happy ending.
MichelleG June 24, 2011 at 06:39 PM
This article does describe the experience pretty well for those of us who were there. I also want to say I'm glad no one was hurt and that the school staff did a great job responding to the incident. But is anyone else wondering HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!????? I have been looking in the police logs and the online news, and I have not seen one word on how this car/driver drove up onto the walkway of the school. Was there a sudden health issue with the driver? Was there a mechanical issue with the car? Or was it just plain carelessness?? I would like an explanation.
Lisa Gibalerio June 26, 2011 at 02:05 AM
Hi Michelle: This is certainly not an official explanation (and I am not an authority on what happened that morning), but I have heard from several sources that it happened something like this. The driver went to turn right into the staff parking lot, saw that it was chained off, and hit her brakes hard. However, it was the gas pedal she actually hit, not the brakes. Her car therefore accelerated through the chain fence, up on the walkway -- just missing the school building. This is the explanation I have heard, at any rate. --Lisa

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