Patti was initially irritated that the newsflash had taken her sister's triumphant performance off the air. She was so close to winning, and it was frustrating that the show had been pushed aside.
As they watched, however, all thoughts of their previous trivial amusement disappeared. They sat, spellbound, as the tragedy unfolded before them:
"….initial, unconfirmed reports claim 20 dead, over 130 injured here at City Place Station in downtown Dallas, Texas…" The reporter was saying for the umpteenth time.
"…potentially many, many more…"
The reporter was one of many standing at the ground level entrance to the station, their smart clothes tarnished with the dust from the debris, their microphones displaying a whole alphabet of News channels.
"… including a party of disabled children…"
"My God, how awful!" commented Brenda, her hand flying to her mouth, as they looked at the casualties being taken out of the rubble and into the waiting ambulances.
Rusty was squeezing Patti's hand reassuringly, noticing an empathic tear forming in her eye. It was a truly harrowing scene, but they were mesmerized, unable to turn away.
"...to you live from City Place Station, where the latest information just in, tell us that the extremist faction calling themselves the Fifth Reich are claiming responsibility for the catastrophic events here today…"
"How can anybody boast about causing so much death and destruction?" asked Lucille incredulously, of nobody in particular.
"…allege to have placed a bomb just inside the north tunnel, which was triggered by the incoming train…"
"Surely station security would have seen them in a restricted area?" Rusty gave his professional opinion, as he was wont to do. The ladies just shrugged, they didn't think of such things, assuming that there must be ways around security – after all, there always were in the movies.
By this time, all those who were still in the cafeteria had gathered around the quartet, crowding round to see what was going on.
Nobody bothered calling the Admiral back, of course. None of them linked the woman on the stretcher with their employer – there was no reason why they should. So they didn't see the need, or the desirability, to call his attention to the disaster, especially given the mood he'd been in.
"… numbers showing on your screen now, if you suspect a relative could be involved in this tragedy…"
A crisis center had been set up, and volunteers were manning phones, taking details from concerned friends and frantic relatives.
As the live coverage continued, it was becoming apparent that a great many more people were trapped in the rubble, where the tri-level station had collapsed in upon itself. The terrorists had obviously chosen their location for maximum destructive impact, and they were surely not disappointed in their results.
"Not since 9/11 has there been such a tragedy on our shores…"
The assembled viewers began the inevitable debate on terrorism, and how to counter it – most of the men taking the macho stance, and spouting on patriotism and threats of retribution, most of the women more interested in the humanistic side, concerned with the immediate victims, and with their own feelings of insecurity in the face of such a daring strike in the heart of their homeland.
Rusty tried to reassure them by pointing out that they, at least, were probably in one of the safest places in the country – not least because he personally was responsible to no small degree for their security. Patti hugged him tight at that and kissed him and called him her own private bodyguard, which raised a few nervous giggles from the other women. Each was trying to cope in his or her own way with the horror of what they were witnessing.
Library footage was being shown of the station's grand opening, just less than eight years before. The glass 'inclinators' (inclined elevators), which were such a showpiece when they were installed, were now no more than a mass of twisted metal and broken glass. The 138-foot escalator, boasted as the longest west of the Mississippi, did not seem like so splendid a feature now that it stood between the victims and their would-be rescuers. And that would only take them as far as the mid-level ticketing area. There was still the lower level to reach.
One enterprising reporter had managed to get close to a conference that was taking place in a sheltered corner to the side of the entrance. The rescue coordinator was pouring over maps and diagrams with a representative of S A Healy of McCook, Illinois: the company who had originally excavated the tunnels. He was explaining the geological composition of the area, which was principally 80 million-year-old Austin chalk, and suggesting the best equipment to use in order to penetrate through to those trapped.
The announcer was relaying the information he overheard to the listening millions, who were hanging on every word coming from the scene, no matter how banal.
Though none of those watching at Project Quantum Leap were the ghoulish type, they could not deny that it was compulsive viewing. They were not enjoying it, not on any level, but they had to watch and listen, and soak up every detail. It was only human nature.
Some news bulletins, you could shut out as background noise as you chatted about your day at work over the evening meal. It may be dreadful, tragic, earth shattering to those in the midst of it, but it didn't really involve or affect the majority of those watching. Sad to say, a whole generation had grown up so used to seeing these things on the news every day, that if not hardened, then they were certainly desensitized to a great deal of what they saw. Something of this magnitude, however, put normal life on hold, across the country – across the world. It touched each and every viewer in a deep and personal way, whether or not they knew anyone actually at the site.
"…it now seems likely that the disabled group may have been the primary targets for the faction…"
The reporter put his hand to his ear, re-seating his earpiece as he listened to the feed from his anchorman.
He passed on details, already known by most who followed world events, of the Fifth Reich's manifesto of antisemitism, and reminded viewers at length of earlier atrocities committed in their name against Jewish communities in Atlanta, Boise and Cleveland over the past year. Once again, library footage was used to show the other events – currently the bomb in the synagogue at Boise. Whilst all three attacks had been major news events, and the death toll significant, none had been on the scale of this new bombing in Dallas.
"Oh dear God, they're working their way all over the country alphabetically!" observed Brenda, sparking a new debate – where would they strike next? Why had the authorities not made this same connection, or if they had, why had the media not covered it?
"To avoid panic, presumably," reasoned Rusty. "Though if we can work it out, so can anybody else. They can't keep a lid on it forever."
"…holiday arranged by the Jewish Women's International organization (formerly known as B'nai B'rith Women) for a group of thirty-two disabled Jewish children aged between six and sixteen…"
At the back of the group, a late arrival to the cafeteria stiffened at the mention of this organization, and shook his head sadly. No, it couldn't be her. Not in Dallas. Could it?
"The cowardly bastards! Targeting little children. How low can they go?" Lucille was flushed with righteous indignation. She squirmed in her seat, as if itching to find the culprits and give them a piece of her mind. Several others concurred with her assessment.
It was all very well to have strong political beliefs, and to fight for them, but this was something else. This was bigotry aspiring to genocide and terrorism of the worst sort. The Fifth Reich had not one single supporter in that cafeteria hidden beneath the New Mexican desert.
On the screen they could see that more victims were being carried out of the rubble, all grey, dust-covered, with blood red highlights, some in obvious pain, some beyond all further hurt, and shrouded in once white sheets.
"…death toll now stands at twenty-seven, including at least five of the disabled children from the Jewish group, and one of the four adults accompanying them…"
This moved everyone listening, but against all odds, in addition to Al, one other in particular of those assembled would ultimately be profoundly affected on a very personal level in a way he was only just beginning to suspect.
More rescue workers were arriving all the time; from further and further afield as news spread of the people trapped ten stories below ground. Brave men and women who didn't hesitate to walk into the jaws of death to bring out the dead and the dying, in the hopes that some, however few, could be saved.
The reluctant voyeurs sat awestruck, in eerie silence, as the tragedy continued to unfold before their horrified eyes; though each time a survivor emerged, there was a collective sigh of relief, or a muted cheer. After a little while, it was not merely those who were romantically entangled who clung to those closest to them – almost everyone was seeking comfort from the nearest hand.
Everyone but the lone figure at the rear of the group, that is, who looked on in solitary dread.