Remarks at a White House Ceremony Honoring the Citizens of Chase, Maryland, Who Assisted in the Amtrak Accident Rescue

February 3, 1987

It's an honor to have you all here at the White House. Now, I know that must sound strange. Most people think of it as an honor to be invited here, and that includes myself. I remember how humble I felt on that day in 1980 when the American people first asked me to come here. But today the tables are turned. For by your deeds, you and the members of your community have honored all America. You've shown us all, once again, the love and courage, the self-sacrifice and eagerness to help and serve those in need -- in short, the qualities that for generations have been the heart of American life.

It was an ordinary winter's day at the end of the New Year's weekend. Some of you were hanging out laundry. Some of you were about to watch the football game. And then something happened -- investigators are still piecing together just what it was -- and your community was face-to-face with the worst accident in Amtrak history. And that's when, on that ordinary day, the people of Chase, Maryland, showed that what we take as ordinary in America is really very wonderful and special, very extraordinary.

Robert Booker and his cousin, Michael Cooper, were among the first on the scene. Robert climbed into a burning car. He couldn't save everyone. And I know that he and all of you've thought a great deal since that day about those whom God took into his arms, but also remember that there are many who are alive today because of your strength and courage. You gave to scores of people the gift of life. As Michael and Robert worked together helping to pull people out of the train, Eve Booker and Juanita Mattes helped to care for the injured, cleaning their wounds, wrapping them, covering them with blankets from their homes to keep them warm. As one reporter wrote of Eve and Juanita: ``They acted quickly, calmly, heroically. But when the night ended, the 15-year-olds wept.''

Well, those stories of sacrifice and love were repeated hundreds of times that day. All of you and your neighbors helped people escape the wreck, helped care for them, feed them, and gave them shelter. Nancy Tharpe said there were 45 passengers in her house on that Sunday. As Bob Cooper said later, ``Everybody just chipped in and did what they had to do.'' And as a result, most of the passengers were out of the train even before the emergency crews arrived. In the hours and days that followed, you took into your homes not only the victims of the crash but rescue workers and reporters, too. I don't want to forget the magnificent work of those workers or the people who, within hours, lined up to give blood for the victims. They made us all proud, too.

Some have talked since about how amazing you were, and I know that Cathi Fischer spoke for all of you when she told a reporter, ``I don't think it was anything remarkable. I think if it had been another community they would have done the same thing.'' But that's just the point; you all did what Americans have done for more than two centuries: When others were in need, you didn't point to the other guys. You just rolled up your sleeves and went to work.

Not long ago a commentator on the network news show said that we Americans had become selfish, only out for ourselves, had lost our dedication to community and country. I know he's paid well to give his wisdom to the country each and every week. But for my money, the true wisdom is in Cathi Fischer's words, and the best answer to him is your example. Yes, on an ordinary day in January, Americans in an ordinary American community showed extraordinary courage, self-sacrifice, and love for their fellow man. And when it was all over, you didn't brag and shout. You just went back to your daily work. But you left behind a gift not just for crash victims but for all of us. Your strength strengthened all Americans. Your spirit will long inspire and guide us all. And as President, I just asked you here today so I could say thanks. Thank you all, and God bless you all.

And now I'd like to award the Private Sector Initiatives Commendation to the community of Chase, Maryland. And, Robert Booker, will you please step forward and receive this? This is in recognition of the exemplary community service in the finest American tradition. Thank you all very much. And just for my curiosity, where are the two young ladies sitting that that night cried? I know they're out there with you someplace. There you are. Well, God bless you.

Well, again, I hate to walk away and leave, but they tell me I've still got things to do over there. I haven't told this for a long time, but I got some letters from some young people when I first arrived in Washington. And one of them that always appealed to me was from a little girl and she wrote -- and very informed about the things that were facing me and the problems I had to solve and everything. And when she finished she said, ``Now, get back to the Oval Office, and get to work.'' [Laughter] So, that's what I'll do. Thank you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:29 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.