A New York City commuter train traveling at 82 mph derails on a curve in a 35 mph zone, derails, killing four and injuring 60+ others. The engineer at the wheel, a “good and responsible man, with an impeccable record,” is devastated, stating that he was “in a daze” at the time of the accident. The news article quotes a railway executive who talks about the danger of becoming “distracted” when driving a train.
The consequences of a few moments of “sleeping” with eyes wide open, bring deep suffering, the kind that is likely to last a lifetime.
I am reminded of my own near death experience some years ago which also involved a train, however, I was the one at the wheel………of my car. I also was in a “daze,” my mind wandering in several directions. As I dipped my french fries in ketchup with my right hand, filling my mouth with that familiar salty, greasy flavor, thoughts of the past filled my mind. I was driving through the tiny town, hardly more than a crossroads, where I was born. I had driven this road thousands of times. I know every bump and pothole intimately.
What a perfect setup for disaster. I am driving a powerful vehicle while engaged in other, complicated tasks (don’t drop ketchup on that white shirt, Trish!), AND I’m consumed by thoughts of the past, all of which have taken me away from the present. My body is there, but I certainly am not.
I remember seeing a blurry, blinking red light, as I approached the set of railway tracks. The scene has a dream-line quality. The light is the signal that a train is approaching. I have the thought, “I wonder how far away it is.” My vision on my left is blocked by the depot, the same one that has been there all of my life. “I’ll just creep up and take a peek.”
And, I do that. I drive slowly onto the first track. Looking to my left, I see the train. It’s very near! At that moment, I hear the clang-clanging signal that the guard rails behind and in front of me are lowering. I am stuck, unable to back up, afraid I won’t be off the track if I drive forward. In a nano second, I know I don’t have time to release my seatbelt, exit the car, and get far enough away to not be injured. I decide to make a hard turn to my right, in order to complete a U-turn. I decide this because I cannot force myself to turn in the direction of the on-coming train, even though that might have been a better choice.
I turn the wheel of the car – hard. The front tires leave the paved road, and are now caught, at a cross angle and at the bottom of the 12″ deep rails of the track. I cry out, “Oh, God!”
The front of the car literally jumps, clearing the tracks, and I find myself on the grass beside the tracks, just as the train thunders by.
A few minutes later, I begin to tremble…and to cry with relief.
I’ve read that there are hundreds of train accidents every year in the US, many involving people in cars on the tracks. I’ve known people who have lost their lives by being in such accidents. I had often wondered how does this happen?
On the day I almost died in the town where I was born, I learned just how easily and quickly a few moments of losing touch with the present, of “being in a daze,” can have disastrous consequences.
I feel deep compassion for that NY train engineer who must live with his painful memories.