An injured boy's wish and a newspaper's job to do good

  • Rafael Guzman, left, poses with his mother, Maria Mercedes Baltazar, and a photo of sister and daughter Susanna Guzman in Elgin on Oct. 2, 1996. Susanna was killed and Rafael seriously injured when a Metra train slammed into a Cary-Grove High School bus on Oct. 25, 1995.

    Rafael Guzman, left, poses with his mother, Maria Mercedes Baltazar, and a photo of sister and daughter Susanna Guzman in Elgin on Oct. 2, 1996. Susanna was killed and Rafael seriously injured when a Metra train slammed into a Cary-Grove High School bus on Oct. 25, 1995. DAILY HERALD PHOTO, 1996

  • John Lampinen, Senior Vice President/Editor of the Daily Herald

    John Lampinen, Senior Vice President/Editor of the Daily Herald

 
 
Updated 10/4/2015 1:24 PM

To our readers:

Having been in the newspaper business for many years, I'm sometimes asked to recall the biggest story we've covered.

 

That's quite a challenge. There have been many big stories. The job has enabled me to meet several presidents and some would-be presidents. I've covered killers like John Wayne Gacy and James Earl Ray. There have been wars and disasters and countless heroes.

There has been such a relentless march of major stories that there are too many to recite.

The first thought that pops into my mind isn't the biggest story. Instead, it's something more intimate, a wistful remembrance of a stranger and a basketball game and an injured boy who'd lost his sister.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Fox River Grove's great tragedy, the deaths of seven students when a train crashed into a school bus that had been stopped on the tracks waiting for a light.

It's hard to put into words the mark that blow left on the community, Two decades have passed, and there is not a time that I drive by that intersection when I don't think about that crash, those kids, an image of the yellow bus with its back hanging over those tracks.

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Life goes on, but such heartache never gets fully put away.

There is some personal consolation that in the aftermath we did some of our greatest work.

We assembled a task force made up of most of the reporters and editors in the newsroom, and for weeks and even months, that group worked relentlessly, tirelessly to examine every aspect of that avoidable crash.

We measured the synchronization of traffic lights with crossing gates at dozens of the intersections in the suburbs. We exposed critical communication gaps between the agencies responsible for crossing safety. We learned so much about the issue that some staff members became even more expert than the experts they quoted.

I'm so proud of each caring member of that staff. We helped make railroad crossings safer here and around the state.

But when I think about that tragedy and our coverage, I think first of a teenage boy named Rafael Guzman.

He was on that school bus, age 14 at the time. His sister Susanna rode on it with him. She was killed. He ended up in the hospital for almost two months.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On the day he finally was released, we were there to write about the homecoming and the challenges still to come. It was a week before Christmas, and his mother said he was all the gift she needed. In a sort of throwaway line, he mentioned that his Christmas wish was to some day see the Chicago Bulls -- a wish that seemed impractical given the family's circumstances.

The next day, our colleagues at WGN radio read our story on the air. And a caller -- Chuck Stevens of Buffalo Grove -- phoned to offer Rafael two second-row tickets to see Michael and Scottie take on the Dallas Mavericks.

Even now as I type this, my eyes tear up like they do every time I tell this story.

This boy and his family had been through such hardship and such sorrow.

And through the kindness of a stranger -- aided by our lucky capacity to link those who need help with those who can provide it -- he won a night of respite where he could find some joy.

This is why I'm in the newspaper business.

It's a microcosm of our job to help make the world a little better place.

• John Lampinen has spent most of his long career at the Daily Herald and is a board member and past president of the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Friend him on Facebook; follow him on Twitter at @DHJohnLampinen.

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