From jaws of death to life of thanksgiving

Local people help with rescue operations. (Bidesh Manna)

Editor's note: Sr. Linsa Paul is a councilor of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation’s St. Paul Province, Delhi. She was in one of the two trains that derailed near Harda in central India the night of Aug. 4, killing 30 people. The trains were passing from opposite directions but derailed within moments at the same spot, where flash floods had washed away supports from underneath the tracks.

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“I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.” (Ps. 91:14-15)

The Psalmist’s words became a reality in my life on the night I was travelling from Khandwa to Vidisha, two towns in Madhya Pradesh state. I had gone to Shanti Bhavan (peace home), an FCC novitiate at Bhojakhedi near Khandwa, to give retreat to our novices there.

Just before I set off from the convent, I was lucky to receive special blessings from the Khandwa bishop.

I was happy since the retreat had gone quite well. I bade goodbye to my sisters and novices and proceeded to the station around 8:45 p.m. It was raining heavily and it took almost an hour to reach the station. Within 10 minutes, my train halted at the station with a hasty jerk. The sister who had come to see me off found me my berth in the sleeper class — seat No. 65 in coach S/5.

As the train chugged off from the Khandwa station, I prayed to the Blessed Virgin and Saint Clara with a sense of gratitude. I found almost all passengers fast asleep and I too soon fell into deep sleep.

Around 11:30 p.m. I heard a terrifying, deafening noise. Suddenly I was thrust out of my berth. I was unnerved, and before I could understand what was happening I felt my head sliding down to a canyon. At the same moment muddy water dashed against my face with great force.

I screamed loudly and stood up in the coach praying loudly, “Jesus, save.” Finding myself neck-deep in water I cried for help.

The derailed coaches of two trains at Harda in central India. (Bidesh Manna)

I remembered the Word, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you: and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” (Is. 43:2). But my heart began to pound heavily as one of my companions told me to stand upon something solid to escape from the raging waters.

Luckily, my feet struck on an iron bar, which was barely enough to hold one foot. It was hard to balance and stay alive for long in such a condition. I looked for some support to hold on. I couldn’t see anything in that pitch darkness. All I could hear was the noise of surging water.

A few men searched for their relatives using the light of their cellphones, and in a split of a moment I saw two iron wires hanging just over my head. I just wedged in and supported myself. “When I thought, my foot is slipping, your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.” (Ps. 94:18)

I stood there for a long time with a firm faith in my heart that the Lord, who called me, would save my life. Meanwhile I observed men jumping in to the river and swimming for their lives. I felt the fingers of a child clutching my foot to save its life. However, within seconds a powerful current carried it away. My heart sank as I felt really helpless.

Almost 45 minutes passed in that eerie and ghostly condition. The roar of waters and floating passenger luggage frightened me. I realized with a shudder that no one was around me, and there was no light to see what was really happening to me. “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.” (Ps. 32:6)

With tears I cried out, “Lord Jesus, I am all alone here. Please come down and help me,” Then I recalled another Psalm: “The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Ps. 34:18)

The Lord heard my cry, as I could hear someone calling out from the train roof whether anyone was trapped inside. With all my strength I cried I was inside and couldn’t move from there. But my cries were drowned in the roar of the river and the person went away.

Gloom descended on me when I realized they had gone back. I prayed to the Lord more fervently. Again I heard their voices above my coach. “Brother, please save me. I am trapped inside,” I said. This time, too, they couldn’t hear my feeble voice. The same repeated for a third time.

A police officer inspects the wreckage of the twin train accident at Harda in central India the night of Aug. 4. (Bidesh Manna)

Yet I did not give up hope. I kept praying. The Lord sent his angels for a fourth time and this time they heard me. They tracked my voice and came to my coach. They stopped above my compartment and broke the emergency window’s glass and in the light of their cellphone found me hanging on two wires.

I was comforted as light peeped through the cracked glasses. The “angels” assured me to draw me out but they could not get inside to help me. They asked me to break free and move toward the door. I told them that I was afraid of drowning. They coerced me to move forward with the support of the floating objects and guided me with their cellphone light.

Offering myself into the hands of the Lord I let go of the wire and put my feet into the slushy water. For a moment I felt my feet stuck in the slush. But with courage I waded through the water and reached near the door. They kept guiding me from the top. I had to cross a big hurdle near the door. They urged me to go down in to the water and cross that obstacle.

Although terrified, I took a dip and came up after a few seconds and landed on a hard surface with no water. I could not see my guides but they could see me. They asked me to catch their fingers. I looked up and saw a few fingertips. Somehow I grabbed them with all my strength. They pulled me up to the top of the coach. I found four generous and kind-hearted men there and through them I experienced my Savior’s love. “He reached down from on high, He took me; He drew me out of mighty waters.” (Ps. 18:16).

Those brothers felt pity on me when they saw my miserable condition. They held me from both sides and led me to safety. With a deep sigh of relief I stood above the train and looked around to assess the enormity of the accident. I shuddered seeing seven derailed coaches lying scattered in the overflowing river.

The men helped me to walk on the derailed coaches to reach the railway track. It was midnight and I was made to sit in another train, which also lost two coaches at the same spot. I was then told that many people had lost their lives and many were missing. I felt immeasurably grateful to the brothers who saved me and to the Almighty Lord who sent them to rescue me. I thanked them profusely and borrowed the cellphone from one to give the news to my convent and my provincial.

The train I was sitting in then took the rescued passengers to Harda, the nearest station, around 4 a.m. My body shivered as I had spent a long time in the icy water. Two sisters from the Holy Family congregation working in that area reached the station and looked for me. They were alerted by my community at Vidisha. They gave me new clothes to wear. Later in the morning we offered a thanksgiving Mass.

Sisters from two FCC provinces arrived at the Holy Family convent later in the day. They were anxious and worried. They took me to a hospital to examine me. To everyone’s amazement my body had not even a scratch. “Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your teacher will not hide Himself anymore but your eyes shall see your teacher.” (Is. 30:20)

This word became literally true in my life.

I received many phone calls and had several visitors for days after the accident. My superior general and provincial took special care to help me recover from the traumatic experience.

“What shall I return to the Lord for all His bounty to me? I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” (Ps. 116:12-13)

[Sr. Linsa Paul is a councilor of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation’s St. Paul Province, Delhi. This article is part of a collaboration between GSR and Matters India, a news portal started in March 2013 to focus on religious and social issues in India.]