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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Death in the cornfield

We were headed south on the Coast Starlight, only 53 minutes behind schedule, between and Vacaville and Dixon, California, when I noticed two very slightly separated thumps, after which the train rapidly decelerated. We were suddenly parked across an intersection in the middle of nowhere, with a square mile of corn on one side and a square mile of (corn? sorghum?) on the other; a place that resembled, to me, nothing so much as the Illinois cornfield in North by Northwest. I suspected the worst, but hoped it was not so, and awaited some announcement but none was forthcoming for some time.

At length, after nearly an hour, one of the crew came onto the intercom.

"Folks, we've had a vehicle strike, and there is a fatality. I'm sorry, but we'll be here for some time."

People began craning their necks out the windows, or running to the front of the train with their digital cameras, a behavior which I felt I could avoid, though I felt the same morbid curiosity. I think this curiosity may be inborn. We can train ourselves, but only with some difficulty, to sit still and show a bit of decorum, as if it were to honor the dead, not that the dead know anything about it.

Conversations sprung up, that had about them the hum of a kind of elation, as when the lightning has struck elsewhere and spared us. Speculation: farmworkers en route to the fields? Kids from high school on their way to opening day?

An ambulance arrived, followed by a fire truck, about eight police cars from all the jurisdictions, three pickup trucks that turned out to be local reporters, two wrecker trucks, five highway safety trucks, and several railroad inspectors, whose job was to make sure the engine could continue its journey and that the rails had not been twisted enough to stop trains (including ours) coming through.

I watched a young EMT return to the ambulance with his defibrillator, clean the wires rather dejectedly, and slam the back door of the ambulance. The slam had a finality that told, more than any words, how the incident had ended.

Firemen came through the train, stopping every four seats or so, and asked each of us whether we were injured. The train backed up about 100 yards and this gave the wrecking crew a chance to tug the wreckage from the tracks.

Eventually an Amtrak crew member came through the cars and shed some possible light on what had happened. A young man had waited in his pickup, alone, for the train to approach the crossing at sixty miles per hour. At the last moment, it seemed, when the engineer could not possibly have stopped, he dodged his vehicle around the crossing bar and waited to die. It had been, so far as anyone could tell, deliberate.

I watched a young woman on a quarter horse or thoroughbred approach the scene, her face a study in speculative interest.

She approached the area where the wreckage lay, turned her horse immediately, and disappeared in the direction from which she had come, at an urgent, insistent canter, throwing clouds of dust and earth clods. Was the dead man someone whom she'd known? Did the policemen know him? Was his story one the end of which had been half expected? Everyone not from the train seemed terribly resigned, as if this death in the cornfield had been known to them all beforehand.

The golden corn rattled on in the stout breeze.

We left the scene after another four hours, and though the mood in the Coast Starlight might seem a little subdued, returned one and all to our admiration for the light on the distant hills.

risa b



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