Su Lum: The train wreck
February 24, 2004
Driving to Denver this weekend, we passed the remains of the recent derailment of coal cars in Glenwood Canyon, which reminded me of a letter to the editor from one of the Amtrak passengers stranded by that event, which reminded me of the time 30 years ago when the California Zephyr hit a car outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.
The letter-writer was upset because the Amtrak crew promptly got off the train, leaving the passengers in dark cars without a clue what had happened or what would happen next. I’d been there.
My daughter Hillery (then 7) and I were en route to San Francisco in 1974, just getting up from dinner in the dining car, ready to change trains in Salt Lake, when the train stopped.
The dining car was a better place to get on the rumor mill than our roomette, so we stayed where we were. After a long time, whispers trickled down that we had hit a car ” hit it and dragged it for three miles. More time passed and then we saw what looked like fireflies on both sides of the train, bobbing in the darkness. These, we heard, were law enforcement people with miners flashlights on their hats, searching for bodies.
Hillery, who is a lot more observant than I am, noted that a scattering of men coming through the car, men wearing suits, ties and hats and carrying small suitcases, were our porters, waiters and conductors and probably the engineer, quietly abandoning ship.
This was before Amtrak, but I think that then and now the train crew knew one thing for sure: This was going to take hours, there was nothing they could do and if they were within striking distance of a station ahead or behind their best bet was to get off the train and hike to it down the tracks.
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As events unfurled, I wished we’d taken their cue and hiked with them. Surely our baggage would have caught up with us eventually, and the adventure would have been a good trade-off for the interminable wait.
It was 1:30 in the morning when we were hustled off the train into a van, and 2:30 before, totally exhausted, we reached a hotel in Ogden where we were put up for the night.
The van driver told us that they found a woman who had been in the car we had hit and dragged (there was no impact ” we might as well have hit a jackrabbit) who had apparently gotten out of the vehicle before impact and thus was unharmed, but so drunk that she didn’t remember if she had been the driver or a passenger or how many, if any, other people had been in the car.
No bodies were ever found, so it was (finally) assumed the woman was the driver and sole occupant, but they looked for a long, long time before they let our train continue the mile or two into the Salt Lake station, where we of course had missed our connection to San Francisco.
So if you’re on a train and it inexplicably stops and stays stopped for hours and you see the CREW slipping off into the night, GO WITH THEM.
[Su Lum is a longtime local and old-time train traveler who wouldn’t hesitate next time she sees her conductor heading for the tracks. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.]
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