A few hours later we finally had the train loaded and rolling. It was one of those crisp cloudless afternoons that can give even the dreariest rural hamlets the appearance of having a charming character. Bleak houses looked rustic, inbred cats and dogs looked feral and natural, and the chill in the air kept them and the few people we saw moving and out of trouble. Time passed easily. By nightfall we were in the dead zone and the first two switches went off without a hitch.
Trains are considered to be fail safe, as opposed to space shuttles and jetliners. If the space shuttle fails in transit between the earth and the sky, there’s no way for it to fail safely. Trains have the advantage of already being on the ground. If something fails, you usually just grind to a halt. This is particularly true of the brake lines. The brakes are held open by air pressure while the train is moving. If the brake lines fail, they depressurize and lock, stopping the train. This is usually the example that engineers point to when explaining that trains are fail safe.
I’ve read multiple times over the years that probably around 90% of car accidents, industrial accidents, plane crashes, train wrecks, etc, are due to human error, and that it usually takes multiple errors, six to eight, to take out an airplane. Through painful experience people have learned that we’re all idiots in certain tragic fundamental ways. It’s all too easy for any of us to get distracted and flip an errant switch or stick a plug into the wrong outlet and blow up a house or a factory. Because of this, several layers of protection have been put into place. Plugs and outlets for different devices have different shapes, dangerous machines and appliances are covered in bright warnings, potentially lethal switches and buttons are protected by locks or put under glass. Still, despite all of these protections, disasters still occur. There is a Swiss cheese theory, it posits that each of our seemingly solid layers of protection is actually riddled with holes. When enough holes in enough layers of protection align, disaster strikes.
We were starting up the first incline I was worried about when there was a sharp lurch and the train exploded. My guess is that the last of the locomotive’s wheels had crushed down a section of rail that was no longer adequately supported due to washout. Bending this part of the rail down jackknifed the back end up into the flatbed car, continuing a chain reaction that led to the explosion of the propane tanks in the next car and the subsequent decimation of the train.
At the time I felt a split second of blinding heat as my ears were overloaded with the roar of explosion. My last thought before I lost consciousness was that at least I wouldn’t have to unload those fucking barrels.