The Rev. Donald Ashman says he knows he was on the train and survived so he could pray for the dead. ‘I was where God intended me to be,’ he says.
Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 18, 2008
Still in a daze from the crash, Donald Ashman walked over to the first body.
Ashman knelt down and lifted a corner of a white blanket covering the body, placed his hand on the man’s forehead and said the words he had said so many times before, almost always at a hospital:
“May God Almighty have mercy upon thee, forgive thee thy sins and bring thee to everlasting life.”
The prayer took just a few seconds. Ashman returned the blanket and turned to the next victim, not far from the mangled Metrolink train.
He didn’t know their names, their ages, their stories. He knew only that they had died and that they had probably been heading home to their families, as he was, after the workday.
Reflecting on that day now, Ashman also knows, as surely as he has known anything in his 62 years, why he was on that train and why he survived.
He was there to administer their last rites.
“I was where God intended me to be,” Ashman said in an interview Wednesday from his home in Thousand Oaks.
A priest, Ashman leads a small congregation at the Anglican Church of Our Saviour on the Westside of Los Angeles, where he has been for a quarter of a century. He also teaches Latin and world history at Hoover High School in Glendale.
At the time of the Chatsworth crash Friday, he was sitting facing backward in the last train car and talking on his cellphone to his wife of 37 years. The jolt pushed Ashman against his seat, and he immediately felt pain and pressure on his back. He heard moans and screams and saw bodies fly down the stairs. One injured man landed at his feet. He looked out the window and could see that there had been a collision with a freight train.
Ashman climbed out of the car and asked a firefighter if there were fatalities. Yes, the fireman answered.
Then Ashman said he was a priest and asked permission to pray for the deceased.
At first, he said, he didn’t think the firefighters believed him -- he was wearing a blue polo shirt and jeans. But as soon as he began to pray, he could see their faces change. A few even joined him in prayer.
“It was spiritually moving, amid all that sadness and tragedy,” he said.
As firefighters pulled out survivors and paramedics treated the injured, Ashman stayed with the dead. He continued to pray, asking God to welcome them. The firefighters brought him more victims. Ashman said he felt an odd sense of calm.
The helicopters flew overhead and news cameramen filmed nearby. Ashman said he was careful not to lift the blankets too far, lest relatives recognize loved ones, bloodied and bruised, on television.
At one point, a firefighter asked him to come with him to pray for the engineer, whose body was still trapped in the wreckage. That blanket wasn’t white. It was blood red. Ashman touched his arm, made the sign of the cross and said a quick prayer.
“I don’t remember the words I said, but I became acutely aware that prayer doesn’t always consist of words,” he said.
Authorities have not determined the cause of the crash. But whatever the involvement, if any, of engineer Robert Sanchez, it doesn’t matter, Ashman said.
“Whatever he did or intended to do, that’s irrelevant,” he said. “Everybody is treated the same in God’s eyes.”
At the time, Ashman said, he didn’t think too much about the religion of the victims, figuring that a short prayer couldn’t hurt if they were Jewish or Muslim. Ashman’s church is part of the Anglican Province of Christ the King, an Anglican Church committed to what it describes as traditional forms of doctrine and liturgy.
Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Ron Myers said that the priest was one of dozens of people who helped the afternoon of the crash, lifting people out of the train cars, administering first aid, comforting the injured.
“As a priest, he has a tool in his professional toolbox that he drew upon to help comfort people,” Myers said. “He was not trying to convert people. He was trying to show them a level of respect.”
After he administered last rites to eight or nine people, Ashman said, exhaustion began to set in and the shock began to subside. So when a fire chaplain arrived, Ashman decided that it was time to go home. A police officer drove him to a nearby intersection, where his family picked him up and took him to a hospital so he could be treated for back injuries.
James Provence, the bishop at Ashman’s church, said he wasn’t surprised by the priest’s actions.
“The thing that we are trained to do is be prepared to hear confession, to administer last rites, to minister to people at a moment’s notice,” he said. “Not everyone has the need to do that, but it’s something you do prepare for.”
Hoover High Principal Kevin Welsh said he saw Ashman on television praying for the victims. “When you see those little clips, it’s so poignant it really gets you,” he said. “It is so gripping and touching.”
Welsh marveled that Ashman ministered to others even as he was injured himself. “That he reverted to that under those stressful, trying and traumatic circumstances,” he said, “speaks to the core of the man as an educator and as a man of personal belief and faith.”
Ashman said he plans to return to preaching this weekend. He doesn’t know if he’ll talk about the crash but expects to talk about healing, of both body and soul.
The Episcopal Church is dying. They're shuttering churches," said the Rev. Donald Ashman, whose Anglican Church of Our Saviour was one of four parishes to break away from the Episcopal Church in 1977. "If these churches are successful, it could open the floodgates."