Sunday, December 09, 2007

Life and death in New Mexico

My blogging has been erratic the last month because I have been busy preparing for and taking an extended trip west- The California Zephyr train to Grand Junction, Colorado, Thanksgiving with family in Cortez, Co., a ride on the Durango/Silverton honest-to-God steam engine, Arches and Mesa Verde National Parks, and return home on the Southwest Chief train. I intend to write about these experiences, and the deeper thoughts they inspired, but first I want to discuss four hours of the return trip, between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, NM.

We had pulled out of Albuquerque on time, 12:55 P.M., having just finished yet another wonderful meal in the dining car. Something over an hour later, the train came to a sudden stop. We thought nothing of it; this is a common occurrence, which would be followed shortly by an announcement about the slow freight or whatever ahead of us. Except it wasn’t. The lights and air shut down, and the emergency lighting came on. Then the sleeper car attendant came through, telling us we had to leave the train. No, not through our own exit downstairs; walk to the last car and then exit on the right. We started walking, confused but obedient.
The confusion deepened as we encountered crowds in cars to the rear who had either been given different instructions or had misunderstood them, and were milling around in the aisles. It eventually got through everyone’s heads that something bad had happened, and standing in the exits swapping rumors wasn’t a good idea; the train emptied in minutes. Once out of the train, the explanation became clear even before the Conductor’s briefing: perhaps a thousand feet behind us was a road crossing with wreckage in it; a few hundred feet ahead the nose of the train had wreckage wrapped around it.

The train had been evacuated because there was gasoline everywhere; it was still pouring out of the ruptured tank as we watched. Fortunately, the local Fire Department responded very quickly, and started watering the front of the train as if it were a potted plant, to dilute the gasoline. As they worked, the train crew passed out bottled water and tried to keep us herded away from either the crossing, where half the car had been sheered off on impact, or the front of the train, where the half of the car containing whatever remained of the driver was deeply imbedded into the front of the engine. It was a lost cause; those few who were interested in such ghoulish sights were impossible to herd, pulling out their cell phones to take photographs. I have no such pictures to share, thank you.

There was much clucking over people who try to beat the train through the crossing, although I later learned locals don’t believe that’s what happened . And from the victim’s life story , what they say seems reasonable.
When the gasoline had been diluted, they allowed people to re-board the train, but I stayed outside- I had been having trouble breathing at that altitude, and they had not turned the air back on inside the train. This allowed me to watch my fellow passengers react and cope, which was probably MY method of coping. Nearly all, except those who just had to get pictures, were solemn at first. But as minutes stretched into hours, many other reactions developed.

There were stabs at humor, of course. “You know what the last thing to go through his mind was? The engine!” Others talked with the Fire Dept. Chaplain, who arrived in the first fire engine. The ravens, who had showed up even faster than the Fire Dept. to orbit around both halves of the wreckage were the subject of much discussion. Some were angry, others philosophical, still others pondered the question of why ravens rather than vultures? Some just became very quiet, not initiating any conversation at all.

Eventually wreckers arrived to winch the imbedded car out of the front of the engine, replacement crewmembers arrived, and we were on our way again. Perhaps it was merely the shock of this happening in the middle of the holiday season, i don’t know... but I’m proud to say that not a single passenger complained about being late.

1 comment:

ms. kitty said...

Gosh, Joel, what a profound experience. Thank you for sharing it. What a shame that this bright young light was snuffed out in such a tragic way.