Charlie, the chief engineer in the train engine, adjusted his seat slightly as he peered up the tracks for any sign of danger. So far, except for the mechanical delay back in the New Orleans station, this had been a smooth run across the southern coast of the country. The new engine looked new, sounded new, smelled new, and ran like a top. He smiled at being privileged to operate such a modern piece of machinery.
According to standard procedure, as they approached the Big Bayou Canot bridge, he looked at the light signal. It showed green – clear tracks ahead. This part of the tracks through the bayou was the easiest to navigate because there were not even any crossings to signal. Only this bridge required attention, and it’s light showed it clear. There was fog in the area, but without crossroads there was no reason to slow down.
“Mack, this is Charlie,” he spoke into the radio to the conductor in the rear car. “The light shows a clear track ahead.”
“That’s good news,” Mack radioed back. “Any chance of making up for lost time?”
“We’ve been running 70 miles per hour, the legal speed. What say I bump it up to 72 through the bayou?”
“Every little bit helps,” Mack answered. “This part of the track always gives me the creeps, anyway, especially when it’s foggy like tonight.”
“Not to worry, my friend. The green light means we can press ahead.”
“I’m marking it down in the log book – 2:45 AM, clear ahead on the Big Bayou Canot bridge. Over and out,” Mack signed off.
“Over and out,” Charlie answered, setting down the radio.
“How are we looking over there?” Charlie asked, glancing at his assistant who was running the electrical board. He smiled again. Most people didn’t know that the massive diesel engines on the train actually were turning big generators, not pushing the train. The generators powered electric motors that actually drove and braked the train. He considered it a delicious mechanical secret.
“This train practically runs itself,” the assistant answered. “Are you sure it needs engineers?”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“I’m about to head back to check on the other two engines. Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m fine, but thanks for asking.”
The train engine’s sound changed from clicks to clacks as it sped out onto the bridge across the bayou channel at the requested 72 miles per hour, two above the legal speed.
Charlie turned back to the front window just in time to see the engine’s front spotlight illuminate the bridge support in the middle of the tracks on the center section of the bridge. Panic gripped him as he started to reach for the emergency brake. His hand never closed on the handle before it was too late.
The next few seconds seemed to go in slow motion, as the clock switched to 2:47 AM on Wednesday morning, September 22, 1993. Charlie had only enough time to begin a yell of “No!” which would never be heard by anyone but his assistant. Never could he have imagined a worse nightmare, as the lead engine slammed squarely into the bridge support going full speed. Momentum and propulsion combined into a deadly inability to stop the train in time.