Brian Logan, The Guardian
It was the midnight train to Georgia. I was 20 years old, a student travelling after a working holiday. Now I was leaving New Orleans, on board the sleeper bound for Savannah. This was the Sunset Limited, “the only true transcontinental passenger train in American history,” Wikipedia now tells me. At the time, it was just another train I was free to ride with my Amtrak pass, as I zigzagged the US (Grand Canyon to Chicago, Chicago to Louisiana) in the last weeks before second year at university. It was the middle of the night. I got as comfy as I could in my upright seat – not very comfy, that is – and settled in for a long journey.
I never got to Savannah, Georgia; I’ve never been yet. At 2.45 that morning, a towboat got lost in thick fog in a bayou in Alabama. The barges it was pushing struck a rail bridge that crossed the bayou, and dislodged the track. At 3 a.m., my train hit that twisted track at 70 mph, and derailed, destroying the bridge. The lead locomotive crashed into the mudbank and exploded. Several other carriages plunged into the water, causing a fuel spill and a fire. Forty-seven people were killed, some by drowning, some by fire. It was, and remains, the deadliest train crash in Amtrak’s history.
That was 20 years – or exactly half my lifetime – ago, which is a realization to set the head spinning. I haven’t thought of the crash much recently, although I enjoy telling the story on the rare occasions I find someone I haven’t told it to already. It’s my party piece. It’s also my pension, after a fashion. When I got home from the States, I was contacted by a Californian legal firm with the formidable name of Kananack Murgatroyd Baum & Hedlund. They wanted to sue on my behalf. I had qualms, but my mum and dad overrode them. I filled in a form recounting my experience, and a few months later was awarded thousands of dollars in compensation. It paid me through university, then allowed me to earn next to nothing for a year or two while I found myself a career.
I’ve always felt uneasy about that: profiting from something that killed 47 people. And about converting the experience into a ripping yarn, replete with details of my satellite link-up to Lorraine Kelly in the GMTV studio, and how the Scottish press dubbed me “Crocodile Dundee” – because the bayou was reportedly full of alligators, and I come from near Dundee. I feel that I ought to have paid for that profit and those stories with more pain or discomfort. That was certainly the expectation of others. From the moment I stepped off that burning train, the media, my friends and practically everyone I ever spoke to about it looked for trauma, or some kind of imaginative horror that my life nearly ended. But I’m not sure I ever felt any such thing.
To jog memories, I just read a news report from the time, in which I called the experience “harrowing”. But I can’t remember being “harrowed”. I think I was just saying what the journalist wanted to hear. Here’s what happened to me. I was woken, and half-thrown from my seat, by the sensation of the train pitching forwards, then violently to one side. It was dark when I opened my eyes, and the next thing I remember, the passengers on my carriage were filing up the aisle and out of the train. I retain a groggy impression of something (a blaze? A commotion?) that we were moving away from. But I don’t remember panic. I thought the train had derailed, that’s all. An inconvenience, not a catastrophe.
We exited the train, and sat on an embankment by the track, waiting to be told what to do. What happened next, I recall only in fragments: an awareness that we were next to water, that something was happening in the water. A group of people – myself included – gesticulating to people in the water and guiding them ashore. This was later represented in the Sun with the headline “Scot is hero of US rail crash” but – on a night when real acts of heroism did take place – I was no hero. Just an uncertain young man, following other people’s lead, on a foggy night, now further fogged by passing time.
After several hours, ambulances and coaches arrived. We were wrapped in blankets and transferred to a hotel in Mobile, Alabama, 10 miles away. We spent a couple of days here, dressed in other people’s emergency-relief clothes while waiting to see if our bags would be recovered. It was here that I first saw TV footage of the incident – and appreciated the scale of what I’d been involved in. I saw the collapsed bridge, the train carriages jack-knifed, half-submerged in a swamp and in flames, and another carriage – mine – teetering on what was left of the bridge. (A coastguard official involved in the rescue later professed amazement that any of the coaches remained on the bridge. After this crash, he said, “everybody should be dead. You shouldn’t have anybody alive.”)
In my hotel room, I phoned home and told my family not to panic when they heard the news. I took a call from ABC’s Good Morning, America, asking for an interview, and turned it down. (Who would see it, after all?) I was then contacted by GMTV, asking if I would return to the crash site for a three-way live link-up with Lorraine Kelly in London and my mum and dad in the Dundee studio. But of course, Lorraine, but of course.
That interview is now celebrated in my family not for my grace under pressure as I fielded Lorraine’s questions, but because my dad – having risen early at GMTV’s request – almost nodded off on live television. It also led to our favorite headline of that period, as the Glasgow Evening Times parlayed my promise of an imminent return into the imperishable front-page phrase “I’LL BE HOME MUM, VOWS GATOR BOY”. The bayous of Alabama are home to alligators, but they played no role in this incident. Nevertheless, for weeks after my return home to TV crews at Glasgow airport, I would be hailed as “Crocodile Dundee” in the street and in pubs by strangers and friends.
Then as now, people would ask me about the experience and seem to want to hear how “harrowing” it was. Or at least, that I had some emotional response proportionate to my proximity to death – my own, and that of other people. When one of my closest friends saw a news bulletin about the crash, he heard my name without hearing that I’d survived. Momentarily, he thought I’d been killed, and it affected him very strongly. He couldn’t travel by train for a long time afterwards. By contrast, my GMTV interview – preserved for ever in the family annals – reveals an almost inappropriately carefree survivor, cheerfully dismissing reports of death-by-alligator and issuing ironic thanks to Amtrak for their efforts to recover my luggage.
It’s only now that for the first time I’ve made space to think about the crash. At the time, I was 20, and had no reason to dwell on it. The media was less emotive than now; there were no front pages with names and faces of the victims. And my own practical experience hadn’t been of a dice with death. It was just confusion, a lot of waiting, some communal effort to assist people in dimly understood need, and only retrospective surprise at what I’d been mixed up in. That was easy enough to shrug off. I wasn’t – I’m still not – given to fretting over what might have been. Maybe that’s a no-nonsense Scottish upbringing, maybe it’s a limited imagination.
Two recent graduates of Exeter University, both aged 22, died on the Sunset Limited. They didn’t get the chance I’ve had, to look back on the experience, put it in the context of a life that long survived it. I didn’t know their names until now – nor that a three-year-old girl (the same age as my daughter now) was killed. Finding this out, I feel the horror of the crash far more sharply than before.
But for me, the experience was – strange though this sounds – almost a positive one. It’ll always be the Most Remarkable Thing that Happened to Me. It gave me financial security, 15 eye-opening minutes of local fame, and a healthy skepticism of tabloid tales of heroism. Mine is the story you don’t hear about after train crashes and act-of-God tragedies – which is fair enough, because it doesn’t merit sympathy, nor does justice demand that it be told. But every public tragedy may simultaneously be a personal adventure, and behind every casualty there may be someone – some Teflon-coated kid, some lucky, lucky bit-part player – who’s just had the most extraordinary experience of his life.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
[Image of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited at Pensacola Bay in December 2004, courtesy of Wikipedia.]