In the Suburbs / Recalling when train crashes just didn't happen
Published 8:25 am, Tuesday, May 28, 2013
I rode Metro-North from Fairfield to Manhattan and back for 12 years, from the late-1980s to the early-2000s, and never was in a train collision. They just didn't happen.
We were occasionally subjected to uncomfortable breakdowns, overheated cars in the summer and frigid cars during many of the rougher winters, among other typical train issues. Otherwise, life on the trains was a routine -- morning paper with coffee (taking care not to spill on the floor as cars swayed and lurched into the city); conversations with commuter friends; and relief whenever I caught an evening express home.
Then last Friday happened. I had been called into work unexpectedly and was rushing to I-95 just off Dewey Avenue and Commerce Drive. When I reached the intersection at the bottom of Dewey, I did a double take. All these commuters were walking like displaced refugees along Commerce Drive. Fire engines and police cars covered the area, and a Metro-North train appeared to be stalled just above the parking lot of a local business.
The side of the train I saw looked perfectly normal, so I thought this was one of Metro-North's predictable stalls. I found out later how wrong I was. Meanwhile, the police had blocked my access to the I-95 ramp, and someone yelled out that there had been a train accident.
I was promptly detoured nearly back to my house and had to take an alternate route to downtown Fairfield.
By the time I returned home for the 11 p.m. news, Fairfield and the mangled remains of train cars were on New York stations. I'm sure we had made national news, too. Early reports said that a still-crowded eastbound train, picking up speed after stopping, probably at the Fairfield Metro Station, jumped the track and hit the left-front a Westbound train from New Haven, scraping and shearing off portions of other cars before coming to a stop. In these early reports, my wife and I learned that people in both trains were thrown around like rag dolls or jolted out of their seats -- no seat belts on commuter trains.
Thankfully, there were no deaths, but apparently there were nearly 80 injuries at various levels of severity. Several people sustained severe back injuries, many more were bruised.
Each train carried hundreds of passengers, and many who escaped physical injury still were traumatized. I'm sure most were asking the same question: How could this happen? With brand new train cars, especially? The will come after a National Transportation and Safety Board investigation.
By Saturday morning, my wife and I were looking at multiple images online, watching the endless recap of the crash and various commuters' and railroad experts' speculation; and recalling the good old days of commuting.
Then the phone started ringing. We heard from relatives and friends who thought I still commuted and wondered whether I was all right. The calls came from Indianapolis, Virginia, New Jersey and Chicago.
Once I'd assured the callers I hadn't commuted in years and was perfectly safe, we spent the rest of the time just catching up. I concluded that these kinds of accidents remind me how lucky I am to have caring family and friends.
I remembered that the same thing happened during Sandy and on 9/11. Those who love and care about us wanted to connect to know that all was well.
By Monday, conversations turned to commuter woes of traffic and alternate transportation to take commuters to trains below the site of the crash. A friend from our quilting guild, for instance, told us she had gotten on I-95 at Exit 30, only to get off at Exit 29 and return home. She said she was hoping for a quick fix, would work from home and was planning to visit a client in Rhode Island -- the opposite direction.
By the time this piece appears, I'm assuming that travel on Metro-North will have resumed a normal pace, and delays will be minimal. Meanwhile, the focus seems to be on a tiny section of track that might have caused this accident. I hope that is the case.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.