Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Tragfic Circumstance

“We need you Schmitty, the paramedics are unloading and we’ll need to move right away.”

Thomas Schmidt stood silently, staring down the frozen rail toward the instrument of death that he alone was certified to pilot. He knew he’d need to move, but at that moment felt paralyzed, able to do little more than in and ex-hale the ice crystals that permeated the pre dawn, sub zero air. The thrumming of the diesel engine hypnotized, its scent still noticeably pungent even after 26 years as a rail engineer. Perhaps it was the quickly freezing blood downstream that gave an extra harshness to the smell of the switchyard, maybe the engine was running rough once having killed one of its own.

“I saw the whole thing Levi; I saw his torso hit the ground. I should have been able to stop man, I tried, God knows I tried.”

Levi Brown gently put his hand on the man’s shoulder. The preacher they’d called him, as he’d talk the mission gospel while he worked. Not that he actually preached to anyone in particular, but that his exclamations were always peppered with “Thank you Jesus” and “Halleluiah“.

“God knows Thomas; you can’t stop a train with a flick of your wrist. Now let’s go man, Ernie’s out there, even though he’s surely dead we can’t leave him lying in the snow.”

“What if he’s…?” Though he couldn’t finish the sentence, the thought was enough to make Thomas start the walk back, carefully sliding across the ponds of ice that had developed on both sides of the track, ice from snow turned to water by the heat of friction from passing train wheels. Ernie couldn’t be alive, it was impossible. Calling an ambulance was simply an exercise in futility, Thomas had watched every second of the accident as if he’d known in advance where to keep his attentions.

The paramedics were waiting as he and Levi approached, and the four men climbed aboard Chicago & Northwestern 184, hauled up a stretcher and trauma kit and got underway. It seemed surreal having to travel a few hundred yards in a diesel engine but the yard was packed this January; only the main line and tracks seven and twelve were open at all, and the derailment had happened on twelve. It would have been hard enough for medics to reach the spot in the summertime, walking the rails at night was a daunting task for even those men that did it to feed their families. With snowpack and ice filling the gaps between one track and another, and the looming boxcars, 20 feet from ground to catwalk blocking out all residual light, there was no choice but to chauffeur the docs to the site of the tragedy. It was doggedly slow, but at least possible.

Thomas was very cautious on the throttle, now gun shy and worried if he’d ever again be able to stop a train; worried that it might have been his age or inattention or lack of ability that had created this mess. Hell it may have even been just his bad luck, but it was a part of him now, as much as he was a part of it. His foreman switchtender was dead, crushed in half, and it was his hand at the controls when it had happened.

They reached the site within a few minutes and Levi and the medics jumped from the wide step at the base of the engine, running through the snow to jump over a knuckle connecting two cars on track eight. There would be four knuckles to cross, four wide pieces of rusting iron, like giant, clenching fists three feet off the ground. They were too wide to straddle, yet the metal was so cold that touching it with bare skin would automatically incorporate your body part to the machine. So it took a little maneuvering to make each passage, all the more time consuming if there were indeed a snowball’s chance in hell it mattered.

Thomas watched Levi’s flashlight vanish as the shadow of the last medic grew to silo size and then winked out. It would be at least ten minutes, if there was anything that remained that might be collectible. It hadn’t appeared so.

It didn’t surprise him that his recall was in slow motion as that was how the original scene had played out. Ernie was hanging onto the last car’s ladder, halfway to its roofline, waving his lantern to signal distance between he and the train they would attach onto. Three waves with the lantern, three box car lengths, and Thomas cut the throttle back a notch, slowing the entire train to a couple miles an hour. Pushing a train was always a noisy process, on the push the cars would clank together and as the speed dropped each car would slam apart. Quiet was the sign of a good crew, though only strived for silently as no one would openly admit trying to micro manage hundreds of tons of steel and a few thousand horsepower. Ernie’s crew was generally as quiet as switchyard crews get. Not that there was a prize for being dainty; like all jobs on the railroad the faster you move the better the company likes you. It was more a relief from boredom that Schmitty would touch the throttle as if it were a woman’s fishnet stockinged leg, and twist it as if he were removing a bullet from his own… slow and certain, calmly, with all senses heightened.

It’s why he knew what was happening almost before it happened. He could almost hear the gravel roadbed give way, the tiny rocks pinging against each other in their rush to escape the weight of a hundred boxcars. He thought he heard the rending of a half dozen ties, the creosote soaked timbers exploding as if termite infested and dynamite rigged. He was sure he heard the rail clang, an unmistakable sound that travels through the air as if an arrow, the sound of tie pins snapping and a steel track being thrown outward by a tonnage too extreme to deny.

As the rear car derailed he swallowed his tongue or he’d for sure have shouted to Ernie to watch out. Like the last person on an ice rink whip, Ernie was tossed free of his handhold by the jostling of the heavy metal and landed on the frame of a hopper car on the next track, only a few feet away. He’d been spun midair and his body had disappeared in the open pocket between the hopper itself and the cars main girders, but the backs of his knees had hung up on a cross beam, and there he dangled a foot off the ground; for only a few seconds.

Thomas sucked in two lungs full of frigid air as he remember the next moment, the coming together of two trains, the explosion of flesh, crushed between unforgiving, relentless steel plate. He screamed, just as he had when it happened; only this time he let it loose and screamed until he could barely catch his breath.

A lantern beam swung from the ground to the engineer’s window; the three had returned and two were carting a stretcher between them.

“He’s alive for Christ sake! Thomas, he’s alive!” Levi shouted so loud that Schmitty winced at the power in his voice. “We’re on board get our asses outa here before we lose him!”

It was only a few minutes back, but it seemed a lifetime in hell. Thomas could not let it go, that the man barely breathing on the catwalk just outside his window, the half a man barely breathing, was injured because of some inefficiency on the engineer’s part. That his living would be no less an indictment, in fact perhaps more punishing as he would have incredible difficulty, pain, expense, and Thomas would carry at least a portion of the blame.

He was in a daze when he stepped off the engine. Levi and the paramedics had unloaded their charge and the ambulance was just pulling out of the “Q” yard’s driveway as Thomas stepped to the ground.

The yardmaster and the rest of Ernie’s crew was inside the yard office, all either crying or muttering obscenity, though Levi was praying while he cried. A handful of “It wasn’t your fault Schmitty”s came floating across the expanse between where Thomas seemed to be and where his mind was actually hiding, yet they never registered as absolution. Thomas was engaged already, heading for the time clock at which he punched out, then slipped his card back into its slot before turning and leaving the building. It would be the last time he’d cross that threshold; the last time he’d drive from his farm into the city. Yet never came the last time he’d suffer his nightmare, nor came an ounce of self forgiveness, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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