Joe Biden Visits Graves of First Wife & Baby Daughter on Anniversary of Their Christmas Crash
“By the tone of the phone call, you just knew,” the president-elect has said of first learning of the accident. “You just felt it in your bones: Something bad happened”
Joe Biden marked a solemn anniversary on Friday, visiting the gravesites of his first wife, Neilia, and his daughter Naomi, who were killed in a catastrophic crash 48 years ago, weeks after Biden was first elected to the Senate.
The president-elect, 78, visited their graves at a cemetery outside of St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church, in Wilmington, Delaware.
He was joined by wife Dr. Jill Biden, the incoming first lady; and their daughter, Ashley Biden, 39, and her husband, oncologist Howard Krein.
The Bidens attended morning Mass together before walking out to visit the cemetery, according to The Associated Press.
The story of the Dec. 18, 1972 crash — the grief of it, how it changed the family — is a key part of Biden's biography: He had just pulled off a surprising victory in his first Senate campaign and was in Washington, D.C., preparing his staff when he learned what happened.
Neilia, then 30, was driving home from holiday shopping with their three young kids — 13-month-old Naomi and sons Beau, 4, and Hunter, 3 — when the family station wagon collided with a tractor-trailer in an intersection outside Wilmington.
"A Christmas tree, briefcase, telephone index cards and literature from Biden's Senate campaign were thrown from the car," according to a local news report at the time.
The station wagon itself "was demolished."
Carolyn Kaster/AP/Shutterstock From left: President-elect Joe Biden, son-in-law Howard Krein, daughter Ashley and Dr. Jill Biden on Friday
Bettmann/Getty Images Sen.-elect Joseph Biden and wife Neilia (center) with their sons cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 20, 1972
Then-Sen.-elect Biden, also 30, soon after received the call that his college sweetheart and their daughter were dead.
“By the tone of the phone call, you just knew,” he told a group of families of fallen U.S. soldiers in 2012. “You just felt it in your bones: Something bad happened.”
Beau and Hunter survived the crash but were badly injured.
Biden left D.C. to rush to his sons’ hospital bedside, where he was sworn in as a senator the following January, while Beau still recovered.
“I remember looking up and saying, ‘God,’ as if I was talking to God myself, ‘You can’t be good, how can you be good?’ ” he recalled in 2012. “For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”
Five years after the crash, Biden married Jill Jacobs, a teacher.
Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty From left: President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden
He has widely credited his wife, now-Dr. Biden, with anchoring his faith and emotions in the decades following the family’s losses. (Son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015.)
“There are times when I couldn’t imagine how he did it — how he put one foot in front of the other and kept going," Dr. Biden, 69, said at this year’s Democratic National Convention.
The couple had daughter Ashley in 1981.
Noting the president-elect’s long history of tragedy during her DNC speech, Dr. Biden pointed to her husband’s empathy and compassion as she comforted Americans who lost family in the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“How do you make a broken family whole?" she said then. "The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding, and with small acts of compassion — with bravery, with unwavering faith.”