January 31, 2005

California Train Crash as Greek Tragedy

I heard the story of the train crash in California, and, as I read more, I discovered tragedy usually found only in art. This is how I imagine it would have felt to be Juan Alvarez in this tragedy.

Imagine you are very depressed and decide to commit suicide. You drive your car on the tracks between a couple of intersections. You sit there for a few seconds and are suddenly seized by the will to live.
You try to get off the tracks but discover you are stuck. In the pause between rocking your car back and forth, you hear the rumble of a coming train. After a few more attempts to get off the tracks, you jump out of your car and wave at the train to get it to stop. Nothing happens until it’s too late and you know the train is going to hit. You quickly get out of the way and the train hits your car.
Now we have all seen the movies and typical news stories and know what happens next. The train hits the car and crushes and pushes it off the tracks as it slides to a stop. Right? Wrong, it gets much worse. The train that is about to hit your car is arranged opposite to the typical train and has the passenger cars in front.
As the train hits, the front passenger car is damaged. This damage causes the train to derail and you see the people in the cars flying around inside. People are hurt. You watch helplessly one of the derailed cars slides over and catches a train traveling in the opposite direction. The car pinwheels through the air toward the other train and disintegrates. People are dead.
Words cannot describe how you feel as you realize that instead of just killing yourself you have killed many people.

My story is not a story about responsibility, just about tragedy. For surely, this is a tragedy for everyone involved. If it was a play, it would be a comedy of tragedy. But it’s not.

News on the train crash: Yahoo! News search for california train crash

Note: Details I found on the crash are conflicting so some of my details may turn out to be wrong.


  • Excellent post, beautifully written; I was right there with Juan on the tracks. This is the real stuff of life, isn't it? In his miracle moment he decides to live--and lives to see so many others die, and then to be arrested for murder! And they may seek the death penalty! This is a multi-layered irony cake. I live in one of America's best-loved cities for depressed people who like the idea of ending it all right here right now on these train tracks that run through town on a harsh diagonal. DeKalb, Illinois may have as many as 20 deaths a year, but we have to keep track of them ourselves. Everybody whispers: the newspapers, cops, neighbors. We don't want to encourage it, I guess. The quietest is the railroad. The railroad, remember, has enjoyed separate status from other interstate commerce since the 19th century, especially in regard to property rights. They view suicides on their property as "trespass fatalities." As a result, my town's had very few suicides by train. None last year! The way they can tell the difference? If they leave a note. I wrote an article called "Suicide Trains" posted at one of my blogs, The Post-Depressionist Almanac at http://depressionalmanac.blogspot.com, in the event you're curious. Nice meeting you. I'll be back for more.

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