One Small Blessing

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE SOUND WAS UNLIKE ANYTHING Helen Getchell had ever heard—a muffled "thump" that froze her in mid-motion as she stood pouring herself a cup of cinnamon hazelnut coffee. She put down the cup and rushed to the window of the White Hen Pantry, a convenience store in suburban Fox River Grove, Ill., 37 miles northwest of Chicago, and looked out on a sight of unimaginable carnage. On the far side of Route 14, a yellow school bus had been struck by a train and ripped from its chassis like a shelled egg. Bloodied teenagers littered the ground.

"I just took off," says the middle-aged Getchell. A registered nurse for only 18 months, she raced across the highway and began barking orders. She yelled at the teens on the bus—35 students from nearby Cary-Grove High School were originally aboard—to get off if they could and told volunteers who arrived on the scene to put pressure on the wounds of those who were bleeding. "She immediately took control," says Bill Hauck, owner of the Grove Union 76 gas station next to the White Hen, where Getchell had once worked as a cashier to put herself through nursing school. "She was like, 'You do this, you do that.' "

Getchell searched around outside the bus for those needing help. "There was one kid who had his spine..." she begins, before covering her mouth to stifle a sob. "I knew he didn't need me."

But one young man did. Getchell found him choking on his own blood. "I needed suction, and there was absolutely nothing for me to work with," she says, recalling her feeling of helplessness. The owner of the White Hen, Gail Rucker, heard Getchell's pleas and sent someone running over with a turkey baster, which the nurse desperately substituted for the real thing. "I held him and said, 'Breathe, honey, breathe!' " she says. As she worked she looked around. Nearby, Tiffany Schneider, 15, lay on the ground, asking, "Am I hurt?"

"I told her, 'No, honey, you're still breathing, you're still talking, you're fine.' "

But the youngster she was working on wasn't. "I just kept telling myself, 'Suction. Breathe. Suction. Breathe.' But finally he didn't breathe anymore."

Then she noticed that Schneider was turning blue. Emergency medical crews, by then on the scene, tried to save her, but her aorta was fatally ruptured by the impact. "I had such guilt," says Getchell, "telling this girl she was okay, and then she died."

In all, seven students were killed in the crash. The final injured child had been transported from the scene when Getchell crossed the road again to the White Hen. After two hours of frantic activity, she washed the blood from her hands and suddenly felt the need to go to the school, where the youngest of her four children, Phillip, 17, is a senior. "I had to see and hug him," she explains. "Now."

Getchell's reaction was visceral, though she has seen more than her share of death. She has been a nurse at the Vitas hospice in Skokie, Ill., since graduating from Loyola University's nursing program in May 1994. She decided to become a nurse after her husband, Albert, who worked for a printing company, died of kidney cancer in 1989 when he was just 49. "Life's twists and turns prepare you for what you do later in life," she says in her living room, which is crammed with early American curios and stained-glass pieces she designed herself.

Getchell, who was born in Russia and went with her parents to a displaced persons camp in Poland shortly before the end of World War II, was raised a Roman Catholic on the west side of Chicago.

She "trusted the professional in me to take over" at the crash. Her hospice coworkers say they weren't surprised when paramedics praised her efforts. "When I heard that she was the nurse, I thought, 'If anyone should be there, it's her,' " says Christina Sapieja, her supervisor at Vitas. "Helen gives from her heart endlessly." To her terminally ill patients, that means picking up their favorite desserts, singing or teaching them a little Polish. "Helen can bring a smile to a dying patient's face just by her presence," says colleague Vassi Adamides.

Getchell stays in touch with many of the spouses of her late patients. She also contacted the parents of the students who died on the bus, trying to console them with her intimate knowledge of their final moments. She gently told one mother, "I held him. He didn't die alone." Kimberly Schneider heard from Getchell that on that cold, tragic morning, when she "was holding Tiffany, my hands were warmed." Initially, Getchell refused to disclose which of the children she had comforted, saying, "Each mother may have thought it was her child, and I wanted to leave it that way." After all, she had meant to be there for all of them.

BRYAN ALEXANDER, BONNIE BELL and BARBARA SANDLER in Fox River Grove

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