Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Train Wreck, part 2

When I got off the train I felt sort of guilty for not trying to help other people. Owen was still in the train, as were most of the other passengers. I learned, through another little catastrophe I experienced a few years ago, that while Fight or Flight are commonly thought of as the two responses to trauma, Freeze is an equally important third reaction. For some reason my brain kicked in the Flight response, while many people on the train were stuck in a Freeze daze. As I watched the diesel pour out of the tank and onto the ground I got more and more nervous that there could be a fire, and at worst an explosion. Finally more passengers came out of the train. The train conductor was holding the door open at that point, making it easier for people to push their way out.

When Owen got out we examined the tracks, the torn-up earth, and the debris, to try and determine what has caused the derailing. In some places the tracks were bent and warped, wavy almost. I assumed the tracks had been laid down incorrectly, which had caused our little train to crash to the ground. Up the tracks a little way a large crowd of people had gathered where there was a road. After debating whether or not to walk around the train and try to keep following the tracks toward Chumphon, Owen and I decided instead to go toward the crowd of people. Maybe they could help us figure out what to do next. As we walked down the tracks there were individual cards from a deck of cards. I picked up the joker, nervously laughing that it would be a good memento of the fact that I had just survived a train wreck. A train wreck! We had just survived a train wreck.

We began to approach the crowd when we realized the true cause of our derailment. A mangled car, really just a mass of twisted metal, was laying in a heap on the side of the tracks. We had hit a car or truck. A group of people knelt on the ground, and I assumed they were helping someone who had been in the truck. A man's legs hung out of a window. They weren't bloody or dismembered in any way. But they were already showing the gray hue that indicated the person they belonged to was no longer alive. Out of another window hung a man's torso. Likewise, his skin had already begun to turn a different color. Neither man was bloody or bruised, just dusty. We continued walking. As we walked past stray items that had flown out of the car on impact--clothing, bottles--Owen turned to me and said "That joker card came from the truck. That deck of cards was in the truck."

We stood by the side of the road for awhile, with townspeople and other train passengers, not sure what to do next. I felt parched, as though I hadn't had a drink of water in months. I don't know if it's a common reaction for people to feel thirsty after fearing for their lives, but it felt like I'd been walking through the desert. I also had a bitter taste in my mouth that began the moment the train struck the truck, a taste that I can only compare to battery acid; a taste that still lingers in my mouth today, almost exactly one week later.

We figured that the tracks were bent not because the State Railway of Thailand sloppily laid down tracks, but because our train had bent them in its swaying and collapse. We could see, from where the truck was, that our train had dragged for quite awhile on the ground after hitting the truck. It seemed to happen quickly, but we must have been on our side for quite awhile before the train finally gathered enough earth underneath it to stop its velocity.

Slowly people arrived with bottles of water. I felt so thankful when townsperson after townsperson offered us bottles of water. Owen and I tried to find shade to stand in and watched as the emergency workers showed up. I don't know exactly what happened at the truck in that next hour or so. I don't know if they had to cut into the car to try and free people, but I think I heard the sound of a chainsaw or some sort of power equipment. As we stood waiting for a way out of the town, we watched the workers bring in three bodies, wrapped in white sheets and cradled as though in hammocks. The bodies were rushed toward the truck. There didn't seem to be any family members nearby, or if they were nearby they were incredibly quiet and reserved. Death is a strange thing to see in front of you. It happened so quickly. In an instant, I imagine. And these three men were gone from the world, just like that. So fragile.

I've been trying to figure out how exactly the accident happened. I imagine that the driver of the truck just didn't look before crossing the tracks. Maybe there was loud music playing in the truck, or maybe he got the timing wrong. But I do know that there was no honking of the train horn, no screeching of the brakes, just a sudden intense boom, hard enough to knock over a train, and then the dusty silence of what comes after.

Everyone in the train was more or less okay. The baby in the back of of the train car sat quietly in his grandmother's arms while we waited to be taken to our next destinations after a townsperson arranged a bus to take us to the next train station. Some of the tourists were crying, shaking, and calling home. They took us away from the scene in the back of pickup trucks, crammed in tightly so that the sweat was pouring from one person to the next. I felt the bruises on my arm and legs, and the Irish girl whose knees touched mine in the truck had scrapes on her shins from leaping to the ground as soon as the train started to fall. Like me, her Flight impulse prompted her to run out of the train as quickly as possible.

Owen left this morning, but for the rest of our trip when we'd have a beer we'd toast to train wrecks. And now I think about the people who died so quickly that day, wondering what their families are doing, wondering how the town is recovering. I wonder what the State Railway of Thailand, who released absolutely no statement to the press about the train wreck, did with our crashed train cars, how they fixed the bent tracks, whether or not they smoothed out the soil that our train dragged for a couple hundred meters. I will never know any of these things, so I'm just sitting here in Bangkok, fighting my new sickness and wondering when the taste of battery acid will leave my mouth.

But we're alive. My fragile life and Owen's fragile life are preserved a bit longer. I want this experience to change me, to help me focus, to motivate me to live my life fully as possible. I'm not sure that it will, at least not on its own. But I guess I can try to use it as inspiration to change, as an excuse to focus, as a reason to be motivated.

By the way, as soon as I could I got rid of that joker card. I crumpled it up and threw it in a trashcan in the little town north of Chumphon and south of Bangkok that will be imprinted in my memory for the rest of my life.

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