A Waterloo family is grieving after 23-year-old man died Friday night, though community support is making the process easier.
Jonah Matthews, a 2014 graduate of Waterloo High School, died when a train struck the tractor he was driving about 8 p.m. in the area of Fults Road at Bluff Road in rural Monroe County.
“Matthews was driving a tractor southwest across the tracks when he was struck and killed by a southbound train,” Monroe County Coroner Bob Hill said. “The collision resulted in the derailment of numerous railcars.”
Matthews was farming when the crash occurred.
Officials from responding agencies said the initial report is that a northbound train had just passed through the crossing when the southbound train came through.
There are no gates at the train crossing.
According to a Union Pacific Railroad spokesperson, the company is investigating what happened before the collision occurred. Illinois State Police is also investigating the crash.
The train crew was not injured, but three locomotives and 10 railcars carrying mixed freight were derailed.
Some railcars were carrying hazardous materials, but they did not spill.
Matthews worked as a farmhand for Ken Hartman Jr. He was a member of First Baptist Church in Waterloo and the Monroe County Farm Bureau Young Leaders.
While at WHS, Matthews was an FFA Star Farmer and earned a state FFA degree.
Waterloo FFA advisors Tim McDermott and Marissa Modglin, who was a classmate of Matthews, had fond memories of him.
“Jonah was unforgettable as a student in the agriculture program in the best possible way,” McDermott said. “Jonah was always entertaining everyone around him, and I could always count on Jonah for a smile, a laugh and to work hard while having fun.”
Jonah’s positive impact was seen Monday night when more than 100 people gathered on the Matthews family front lawn east of Waterloo for a prayer vigil.
Thirteen prayer circles formed, with some praying out loud and others to themselves.
As they were praying, individuals cried. When they finished, they hugged their own loved ones and shared stories about Jonah.
After the prayer, members of the Matthews family addressed those who came to support them.
“I look around and I see nothing but love here, and it means so much,” Debra Matthews, Jonah’s mother, said as she fought back tears. “And it honors our precious Jonah and he deserves that. We just appreciate it so much.”
Debra spoke about how her son, one of six children, lived a “well-intended, contented and satisfied” life and encouraged others to learn from him.
“Maybe God calls people home who are more ready, and maybe Jonah was a little more ready than we were,” she added. “And that is to inspire us to get ourselves a little more ready. I invite you to do that with us, whatever that means for you.”
David Matthews, Jonah’s father, spoke next, choking back tears as he spoke glowingly about his son.
David went on to say that while the family does not know why Jonah died, they do know one important fact.
“We love Jonah very much and Jonah loved us very much, and we can’t ask for anymore,” he said. “By what we’ve seen in the community just in three days, Jonah was well-loved. We appreciate that. We will never be able to repay or thank the community for everything that is going on. We can feel the prayers. It’s unbelievable.”
David said the family will continue needing support in the form of prayers and fellowship.
“I’m not the kind of person that asks for help much, but I’ve had to ask for a lot this week, and I know that there’ll be more of that because most things I can handle, but I can’t handle this by myself,” David said. “Luckily, I have a wonderful family, but they’re suffering too.”
The final member of the family who spoke was Jordan, one of Jonah’s older brothers.
He shared how a friend of his from the Marines who nearly died while serving encouraged him by saying the family will be reunited in heaven.
“That brought a lot of security to me because I know that man would never lie to me,” Jordan said. “It’s real.”
Jordan then told another story about how Jonah had recently called him three times, but he did not answer.
When Jordan called him back, he found out Jonah just wanted to spend time with him. The two exchanged some brotherly banter.
“When I got off the phone with him, there was a sense of pride that came over me because he thought I was cool,” Jordan said, weeping openly as many in the crowd did the same. “But, in reality, he was the coolest. He was cooler than me. I just felt so honored that my little brother wanted to hang out with me. I never told him that I loved him, but he knew. He knew.”
In addition to his parents and Jordan (and Jordan’s wife Brook), Jonah is survived by brothers Joshua (Jamie) Matthews, Jacob (Kristen) Matthews, Jeremiah Matthews and Jesse Matthews, plus numerous other relatives and friends.