I wonder if they knew it was going to happen? Or if they were caught by surprise? Worse… if they weren’t. Was it a tragic slip? A fatal miscalculation? Or was it pre-meditated?
I live in Fox River Grove, Illinois. Fox River Grove is famous for two things. The first is the tallest point in McHenry County - the Norge Ski Jump. The second is the horrific school bus train incident that resulted in numerous fatalities in the early nineties. I don’t know the details. I have a story in my head that the incident resulted in the mandate (law?) that all school bus drivers have to stop and look both ways before crossing train tracks. Apocryphal or no, I think about it often.
There is still a memorial to the kids, almost 30 years later. I pass it twice a day.
In Chicago, the commuter rail is called Metra. I’ve been riding Metra almost every week day for the last six years. The trains are enormous, 2-level centipedes with bathrooms, air conditioning, and electrical sockets. Decades ago some of the trains even had full bars. You can still drink on the trains, a privilege festival revelers and sports fans often enjoy. Sometimes I get a Modelo from CVS and drink it on the trip home.
During my commutes with Metra, there have been approximately three pedestrian train incidents.
With each, there is a pattern. An announcement over the intercom. Unknown time tables. Information about what station we are going stopped at. Which train cars will be open. Some people get off. Some people stay on. After approximately three hours, the trains move again.
I’ve never felt annoyed or inconvenienced. Instead it is a strange sense of sorrow and camaraderie. The sorrow is for the one who - presumably - died. The outcomes other then death for a pedestrian train incident seem as rare as they are likely. The camaraderie is for my fellow commuters with all their parallel feelings of sorrow.
There is more sorrow for the family, lives forever changed. The phone calls could be going out this very moment. Or perhaps there is no family. I will never know.
This time I got off the train. Now I’m on a bench in Arlington Heights, writing about the whole thing. Two incidents ago I was in Park Ridge or something. My train pretty much emptied and it seemed like everyone went to the same bar. Strangers, we entered. Strangers, we drank to the fallen. Strangers, we left. No small talk. No, “How about them Cubs?” Just several dozen middle class professionals contemplating their mortality together. Through some form of osmosis we knew the train was going to start moving again so we headed back.
Isn’t it amazing? Without such an “incident” (can we just stop to appreciate how hideously inane that word is in this context?) everyone’s night would have gone according to schedule. But with the “incident” dozens of trains were delayed. Hundreds of people were thrust into a new environment, disembarking at stations they have no reason to visit, writing blog posts that were never meant to be.
During one of the incident announcements, the conductor uttered the word “forensic” on the intercom. The word stuck with me. What a job. Pedestrian Train Incident Forensic Analyst. Put a dot on the map where it happened. How many dots are there? Across how many lines?
I don’t believe in fate or predetermination. Nor do I believe there is a higher organizing principal assigning meaning to everything. Our awareness ebbs between chaos and serenity. Some things make sense. Others don’t. Our job is to create meaning out of it all and try to help each other out along the way.
Tonight, my father was generous with his time and agreed retrieve me from Arlington Heights. On the drive back we passed the scene of the accident. There were a dozen emergency vehicles parked on the side of Route 14. Two pockets of activity. One towards the back of the train, the other at the front engine. In that moment I knew this was a suicide. This was a barren expanse of track: no crossroads, sidewalks, or houses. Kids would not play here. This person knew the express trains during rush hour would be barreling down the tracks at maximum speed. Half a mile away loomed the quasi-brutalist silhouette of Arlington Heights Race Track. A strange place, the Race Track. You can gamble on the horses there.
At the front of the train, a man leaned back in the unmistakable gesture of iPhone photographer’s the world over. He was framing the cowcatcher.