Oct 25, 2010

Train Wreck

9 Min Read

If you have read R.C. Sproul’s books or listened to Renewing Your Mind, you may have heard about the train wreck he was involved in back in 1993. He wrote about this event in his 1996 book The Invisible Hand. Read his account below, along with some of his teaching on the role of providence in this event and in any other difficult circumstance.

I was riding on a bus with my wife in Mobile, Alabama. We were seated on a bench at the front of the bus. Across from us on the opposite bench were three people, a young man and his wife and the young man’s mother. The young woman was obviously in distress; her hair was wet and stringy, and she had wrapped a blanket around herself. Her lips were blue, and her teeth were chattering. As I watched her shiver I noticed that she had neither socks nor shoes on her feet. This was not the usual sight one sees on a bus!

I wanted to help this young woman, but I wasn’t quite sure what I could do for her. I removed my shoes and my socks and then handed my socks to her. My shoes were of no use to her as they were too big for her tiny feet. She smiled and thanked me as she donned my socks and doubled them over to provide more insulation from the cold. When the bus reached its destination we all got off, and I never saw the young woman—or the socks—again. I wonder what she did with them…

Though I never saw these people again I did read about them the very next day on the front page of USA Today. The newspaper article recounted the same story the couple had related to us aboard the bus, an incredible story of survival. The destination of the bus we had ridden together was a hospital, ironically named Providence Hospital. We were taken to this hospital because we had just been in the worst train wreck in the history of Amtrak, the crash of the Sunset Limited, which had plunged into the waters of an Alabama bayou. This wreck killed more people than have been killed in all the other train wrecks in Amtrak’s history combined.

The couple and the woman they were with were the only survivors from one of the coaches that had plunged into the water and was submerged at the bottom of the bayou. The husband told me that when the accident occurred he had had five seconds to push out the emergency window and pull his wife and mother out of the train and into the murky water. Holding hands, they had struggled to reach the surface. When they broke through and their lungs gasped for air, they flailed with their feet and arms as they fought to tread water. The husband said he was surprised to find something solid under his feet. He later realized he was standing on the roof of the submerged coach. Together they made their way to shore and to safety, escaping both the water and the flames that were roiling around them.

My wife and I had boarded that train in New Orleans. It was behind schedule, running a couple of hours late, and we boarded sometime after midnight. Our sleeping compartment was already made up; the steward led us to our room, where we retired immediately. At three o’clock in the morning I was awakened while flying through the air in the darkness of our cabin. I heard the screeching sound of metal against metal as the train car bounced to a halt. I was experiencing the law of inertia. The train was stopping suddenly, but I continued moving until I crashed into the opposite compartment wall. The first words I heard were from my wife, asking me if I was hurt. I said I was okay and asked her the same question. She said she was uninjured. Then the steward was at our door, asking if we were hurt. The woman in the next compartment was screaming that she was bleeding and she couldn’t open her door. As I moved to open our door so I could help the steward get to the woman, I fumbled with the lock and couldn’t get it open. With quiet calm, my wife reached over in the darkness and opened it for me.

In the initial moments of the crash I was not alarmed. Perhaps it was shock. I assumed the train had been involved in an accident with an automobile, an event that is all too commonplace at railroad crossings. But when I stepped into the corridor to help the steward get the woman’s door open, I saw something that changed my initial assessment. A huge column of fire rose fifty to seventy-five feet into the air forward and right of our car. Now I assumed we had hit a gasoline truck to create such a fire. My wife had not yet seen the flames, so I (trying to sound calm) said to her, “Vesta, we need to get off the train.” She said she had to find her clothes and her shoes before she would get off. She quickly got dressed and handed me my clothes so I could dress quickly as well. I could see that the flames were moving in our direction and again advised Vesta to hurry up and get off the train. She would have none of it. She wasn’t getting off until she found our shoes. I said, “Forget the shoes. We need to get off now!”

She found our shoes, and we finally went down the stairs and got off the train fully clothed. We were the last ones off. A train worker helped us off and herded us to the rear of the train and down the tracks, away from the fire. Vesta had no injuries. She had been asleep in the upper berth when the accident occurred, and her inertia was arrested by a leather harness designed to keep passengers in the upper berth from rolling out of bed in the night. The lower berths have no harnesses.

From our vantage point at the rear of the train, the scene before us was almost surrealistic. Dense fog mixed with clouds of smoke rose from the swamp. The pillar of flames was still visible on the right side of the train. I could see the ray of a boat’s searchlight eerily piercing the fog and smoke, and I could make out the form of train cars protruding from the water at a strange angle. I had no idea that more cars were submerged beneath them. Scores of people were milling around by the tracks, many with blankets. I don’t know how many people had survived the water, but it was certainly more than fifty. None of us realized the full gravity of the moment. There were no shrieks of pain or panic among the survivors. There was no realization that so many people had been killed. Those who perished died in the first minutes after the crash, entrapped in the submerged cars.

As the danger of the fire passed, I moved back toward the train and noticed that our car was resting on a bridge, its wheels off the track. Ours had been the last car on the train. I went back on the train to retrieve our luggage. With my eyes adjusting to the darkness and by the glimmer of light from the glow of the fire, I could tell our room was in shambles.

After I got off the train again and rejoined my wife, we sat by the tracks with the rest of the survivors for three hours waiting for help to come. A helicopter arrived and hovered above the wreck with a searchlight peering down at us. The accident had occurred in such a remote area there was no access to it via car or truck. The only access for the rescue workers was by train, and at this point there was only one track to use in either direction. We later learned that a freight train was behind us and when the accident was reported to it via radio, it had to stop and back up an hour’s journey to Mobile to get clear of the track so a rescue train could come to the site.

When the rescue train arrived it had three coaches filled with firemen, paramedics, and policemen. A quick triage was conducted, and the survivors were put aboard the three coaches according to the severity of their injuries. Those in the greatest distress boarded the nearest car; Vesta and I proceeded to the furthest car. Like the freight train, the rescue train had to go backward toward Mobile. During the hour-long trip two passengers on our car suffered heart attacks. When the train reached the outskirts of Mobile at a major highway intersection, we got off the train and were processed through another triage point. More than one hundred ambulances were assembled there, some of them coming from as far away as Florida to help in the rescue.

That’s when we boarded the bus for Providence Hospital, a trip that took almost an hour. We were amazed at the masses of people that lined the expressway and followed the progress of our bus as it was led by two police motorcycles to the hospital. When we arrived at Providence Hospital about one hundred hospital people were waiting at the front entrance to treat those of us on the bus. My wife and I were checked over by physicians and then released. I seemed to have no injuries and was simply eager to get out of there and call home. I didn’t realize I had sustained a back injury until the next day.

We were not able to get to a telephone until more than five hours after the accident. We weren’t all that concerned, however, because we assumed that no one in Orlando would have heard of the accident. Eventually I called our office, and when the receptionist answered and recognized my voice she started to cry. Footage from the crash site had already aired on CNN, and our friends and family did not know if we were living or dead. My staff told me my son and one of my close associates were already at the airport ready to board a plane for Mobile. I told my secretary to call the airport and have them paged so they would know we were all right.

We left Providence Hospital in the care of one of their administrators, who kindly drove us to the airport. At the airport we saw people gathered around a television set that was showing footage from the accident scene. Now the sun had risen, and the view was clear. It was then, from listening to the news report on television, that we first learned of the full magnitude of the accident. It was a weird experience, standing there watching the story we had just lived through unfold on television.

What actually happened in that Alabama bayou? The later investigations put all the pieces together. It began with the problem of the fog, which caused a commercial boat pushing barges across the water to become disoriented. Inadvertently it began to travel up the mouth of the waterway, which was closed to boat traffic. To make matters worse, one of the heavy steel barges suddenly broke loose from the boat and became a runaway in the water, crashing into the railroad bridge. But this bridge was not a normal drawbridge. It was built originally as a swivel bridge that pivoted open to allow boats to pass. When the waterway was closed to boat traffic, the swivel point was welded shut in the closed position. When the runaway barge hit the bridge, it hit it precisely at the swivel point, breaking the weld and moving the bridge open just enough to separate the train rails.

Now, Amtrak has a warning system built into its rails. When a track separates, an electric current is disrupted, which then signals the train that a track is separated ahead. But the separation occurred only seconds before the train reached the bridge, so the engineer had no time to stop or even slow down. The brand-new supercharged engine literally flew off the bridge and plunged into the muck of the bayou, burying itself and its crew in the ground more than eighty feet below the bridge. When the engine left the bridge, the fuel lines were broken, spilling tons of diesel fuel into the water, which ignited into a tower of flame. As more cars rolled off the bridge and into the water, the momentum of the back cars was slowed as the cars fell on top of each other in accordion fashion. All of this happened in seconds as a result of a “freak” combination of events that culminated in the crash.

I knew that on the horizontal plane of history this train wreck was a horrible tragedy. I also knew that on the vertical plane there are no accidents. I understood that the invisible hand of Providence was involved in this “accident,” and it was one of those events that worked together for good for those who love the Lord.

Often the language of the reporters when they comment on such accidents includes references to the “ill-fated train,” or the “ill-fated plane.” I hope this is merely a manner of speaking and that the reporters do not really believe that the destiny of human beings is in the hands of “fate.” The fates were part of the mythological system of the ancient world, and they were depicted as arbitrary, capricious, and mischievous sub-deities who wreaked havoc among people. Today fate is sometimes seen as a blind force of nature that causes horrible things or good things to happen to us.

The doctrine of the providence of God leaves no room for fate, blind or otherwise. God is not blind; neither is He capricious. For Him there are no accidents. With God there are no cases of chance events.