Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Trains and planes and heroes

Mon, 07/15/2013 - 8:00am

Recent weeks were rough for the transportation geeks. I hang around with rail fans, and guys who’ll spend hours talking about airplanes, and with people who would go quite a bit out of their way to look at an antique fire truck. The six o’clock news has not been easy on the likes of us.

This Fourth of July on Matinicus was nothing but fun and games, with a wonderful parade of silly, homemade, low-budget floats and three from our sizeable fleet of hand-me-down fire apparatus making the almost-a-mile round trip. Flag-bedecked red, white and blue utility trailers, usually reserved for lobster traps, carried drummers and little kids in pirate regalia. Matinicus fire trucks still lettered “Vinalhaven,” “Lincolnville,” and “Mount Vernon” were proudly paraded up and down the main strip, sirens and horns squealing, one carrying a large spotted dog who volunteered to make a reasonable approximation of a Dalmatian.

Later that day the news from Bangor nearly brought tears.

A firefighter was driving the 1930 fire truck in the Bangor Fourth of July parade when his brakes failed and he hit the 1941 tractor ahead of him, resulting in the death of the tractor driver. Spectators mentioned the look of anguish on the young man’s face as he realized he couldn’t get the old truck stopped in time.

Two days later, I first saw mention of the train explosion at Lac Megantic online, a few seconds of video from somebody’s telephone on YouTube, passed along by one of my husband’s old Trolley Museum buddies who now works for a larger railroad a few states to the south. The comments attached were mostly from Canadian reporters and the Associated Press asking permission to use the video. Within minutes, other friends who had reason to be paying attention—Canadians, mainly, and a few railroad people—were spreading the word. Before long the explosion and fire was the top story in the news--for a few hours anyway--until the airplane crashed upon landing at San Francisco.

That aircraft, having crossed the Pacific, approached the runway too low, then evidently hit the seawall, broke the tail section off and caught fire--but thankfully most aboard survived. The de Havilland Otter that crashed in Soldotna, Alaska, the next day killing the pilot and all nine passengers seemed merely an afterthought to the national press. According to an Anchorage newspaper there were no witnesses. “Air taxi,” they news people said, quickly in passing. “Float plane,” one reporter said inaccurately, as though talking about something strange and obscure, something far away, an Alaskan sort of thing most people wouldn’t understand. Sure.

How could there be no witnesses? It’s possible. Soldotna is smaller than Belfast, Maine; I’ve been to the Belfast airport when there was nobody in sight but for the occupants of our little plane.

All these horrible accidents happened right on the heels of the death of the 19 wildland firefighters in Arizona. Not long before that story broke, I’d been talking to my 22-year old son about the possibility that he might go out west and get involved in that sort of work. I swallowed hard, but won’t retract my admiration for those heroes. Firefighters were central figures in all of the stories about the wrecks, like San Francisco fire lieutenant Christine Emmons who was on the evening news, after she and fellow airport firefighters worked to rescue people from wrecked Boeing 777, alongside a few other responders, including a local police officer who had no protective gear appropriate for a fire. Like Maine firefighters from Rangeley and Farmington and small woods towns in Franklin Country who drove their fire trucks through the border station and responded to Lac Megantic. In Soldotna, the firefighters were evidently the first to see the airplane down. And Bangor, poor Bangor, where the Fourth of July brought gut-wrenching tragedy especially to the fire department.

Why did Bangor firefighter Patrick Heathcote’s name sound familiar? I realized that as an EMT, I may have taken a class with him somewhere, might have shared some of the many hours of required continuing education in emergency response with him. I know I’ve crossed paths with him somewhere. The name is so just familiar, although I’m sure I don’t know the guy. Heathcote was driving the truck that apparently knocked the man off the old tractor and … well… I don’t need to be a reporter. You all know what happened.

You just imagine; imagine being a dedicated life-saver, a put-yourself-in-danger-for-the-protection-of-others sort of person, as is every young fireman, and being faced with that inevitability in a truck that won’t stop, and nothing to be done about it.

In San Francisco and in Lac Megantic, in Soldotna and in Bangor, investigators are still trying to figure things out. My sincere hope is that the rest of the world will be quiet until the facts have been established. People like to run around yelling “Heads will roll!” and pretending to be all authoritative and incensed when they actually ought to just acknowledge the deep sadness of a situation and tread lightly. It isn’t as though the U.S. and Canada and South Korea don’t have mechanisms for dealing with fault, if there is any; we don’t need a bunch of spectators shouting for blood, rounding up the lawyers, ranting in the comments section under the news articles, eager for somebody to be blamed so they can be thrown to the lions. You can be sure those Korean pilots did not wake up that morning planning to screw up.  As of this writing it sounds like they’re not so sure in Quebec. When I think about the air taxi in Alaska, I just shudder a little and hope for the safety of my own air taxi guys around here.

Let there be maintenance, and training, and checklists, and all the safety protocols the regulators and the companies can think up, but let there also be patience. Wagging tongues on the sidelines who suggest that trains aren’t safe, or airplanes aren’t safe, or antique trucks aren’t safe are for the most part wrong. Isolating individuals upon who to pin these tragedies will not bring back the dead, and will not restore an entire Canadian town burned to the ground. Let us continue to smile when we watch a train pass by, watch an airplane take off—and let there always be firefighters.


Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.


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