Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part V. RESCUE
The call came at 4:48 P.M.
“There’s been a train accident,” SR77 said grimly. “We’re staging at Rinaldi and Canoga in Chatsworth. I don’t have any further information right now.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
I slipped into my uniform, pinned on my badge, loaded my tactical belt, grabbed my EMT jump kit, and raced to the car. As I neared the staging location, four policemen stood in front of yellow caution tape stretched across Canoga Avenue. I showed my C.E.M.P. badge and they let me through the roadblock, no questions asked.
We’d already been involved in a number of incidents—most recently, helping to capture a serial arsonist in Griffith Park. But this was the biggest disaster we’d been activated for since I’d joined. In fact, it was one of the biggest disasters in Los Angeles since I’d moved there nine years earlier. In learning to run away from catastrophes, I’d somehow ended up running to them.
A Metrolink commuter train carrying 222 passengers had collided headfirst with a Union Pacific freight train. Near the scene, I found the rest of the team amid a sea of police cars and fire trucks. Smoke billowed into the air, while stray passengers wandered dazed and bloody in the street. Nearby, firemen waited impatiently for permission to cut through dead bodies to get to victims trapped beneath. Though the news had reported only three casualties so far, it was clear there were many more.
Though I wanted to run to the train and help, this was the incident command system in action and we had to wait for our assignment. In the system, either everyone is a hero or no one is. Individual initiative costs lives.
“Who here’s an EMT?” asked SR07, our incident commander. He’d just received his instructions on the radio.
I raised my fortunately fingerprinted hand, as did five other members of the team. “I need you to grab your medical bags and go to Chatsworth High School. We’ll be staging there.”
We jumped wordlessly into my car and drove to the school, where we turned the auditorium into a reunification center for families and the gym into a treatment center. In the meantime, rescue workers from the Red Cross, the Office of Emergency Services, the police department, and the fire department began arriving.
While the severely injured victims were transported to area hospitals, the walking wounded were sent to us. They trickled in with cuts, bruises, scrapes, and sprains. Around their necks hung the triage tags I’d learned about in CERT and EMT classes. I never thought I’d see them used in a real disaster so soon.
As we worked, a van belonging to a computer repair company pulled up in front of the gym to distribute pallets of water. Local residents came by with boxes of donuts and thermoses of coffee. Pizza stands, supermarkets, and drugstores contributed food and supplies. The generosity from the community was staggering. It flew in the face of my Fliesian beliefs.
My first patient was a bald Hispanic man in a large button-down shirt and khaki pants. He limped toward my station and collapsed into the chair. After quickly checking his ABCs—airway, breathing, circulation—I knelt down and inspected his legs. As I did, I was overwhelmed by a sense of purpose. Prior to this moment, my life had been dominated by the pursuit of pleasure, personal growth, and survival. I’d never imagined I’d be doing something that was actually helpful to others, or that I’d find it so fulfilling.
“Me and some of the passengers wanted to go back in for the others, but the car was on fire,” he said as I checked for fractures and deformities. He seemed to be replaying the scene in his head, trying to figure out if there was anything he could have done to help his fellow commuters. “But we got scared. It was too dangerous. We tried, though. We really did.”
Unlike what the survivalists, the PTs, Lord of the Flies and Sigmund Freud had led me to believe, it seemed that tragedy also had the power to bring out the best in people. Not just the fire-fighters and police officers who worked around the clock. Not just the locals who arrived en masse to volunteer. Not just the businesses that brought truckloads of supplies for neither monetary nor marketing gain. But even the victims themselves tried their best to help one another.
They might have behaved differently if their lives were still in danger, resources were scarce, and they had to compete to survive. But once they were safe, it seemed that people’s first instinct was to look after one another and support their community. Maybe I needed to consider modifying my Fliesian philosophy. If people were animals, then like most animals, they were essentially harmless most of the time—unless they felt threatened. That’s when they became vicious.
As we treated more survivors, cookies, granola bars, hamburgers, pizza, and energy drinks continued to arrive by the armful. When I thanked one woman for her generosity, she replied, with a smile, “It’s not looting if you leave a note.” I looked up and recognized her from my CERT class. I guess I was no longer a lone wolf.
When the trickle of survivors stopped, we were sent to the crash site to join the rest of the team. The riot of toppled, crushed, derailed, and accordioned train cars was one of the most brutal things I’d ever seen. The Metrolink locomotive had been pushed back into the first passenger car, shearing through the metal to come to a stop more than midway into the carriage. The force of the impact had knocked the car off the tracks and onto its side, where it lay decimated. It seemed doubtful anyone in the front of the carriage had survived.
Our task was to help light the scene so firemen could extricate the remaining bodies like this:
On the ground outside the decimated car, a lone sneaker lay in a pool of diesel fuel. I wondered about the fate of its owner. Meanwhile, paramedics taped a yellow tarp over the back windows of an ambulance, preparing it to receive the body of a female police officer who’d been a passenger in the front car.
I walked back to the second car, where I noticed a pile of bloody rags in the doorway. Beyond them a man lay sprawled in the stairwell, partially covered with a sheet. It was the first dead body I’d seen in my life. His right hand was extended. Next to it, a cell phone lay flipped open, as if he’d been making a call, unaware it would be the last thing he ever did.
It was my worst fear come to life. The torn metal, the shattered glass, the bodies ripped from life: this was what the world really looked like through apocalypse eyes.
And it woke me up to something I’d spent the last three years trying to fight: my own powerlessness.
In that moment, it felt like there was no other being out there or up there or anywhere who cared about us. We’re just fragile machines programmed with a false sense of our own importance. And every now and then the universe sends a reminder that we don’t really matter to it, hurtling us into confusion and a panic for answers that will allow us to resume our program again.
On the other side of the train, a blood-soaked white blanket lay over part of the body of the engineer. It looked as if he’d tried to jump out of the train at the last minute, only to be crushed by the engine as it toppled onto him. If he’d made it just three feet further, he would have lived. Perhaps survival, like success, is just a matter of talent, luck, and timing; maybe that would be a more accurate motto for the Survivalist Boards than “endure—adapt—overcome.”
Further back, up the side of the embankment, a large, lumpy yellow tarp lay spread across the dirt. As if to eliminate any doubt as to what it concealed, a cell phone began ringing from underneath.
Now I knew how I responded when plunged into the fire. I didn’t get physically sick. I got spiritually sick.
A few minutes later, a team from the coroner’s office arrived and began pulling back parts of the tarp. Bodies lay underneath in various stages of deformity. One man was eviscerated, his organs spilling onto the ground. A young man’s leg was amputated beneath the knee, his face crushed beyond recognition. And a woman’s bones were broken in so many places she looked like a discarded marionette.
They were all on their way somewhere. They all had unfinished business to take care of. And it didn’t matter whether they were the good guys or the bad guys, honor students or struggling businessmen, faithful wives or cheating husbands, hard-core survivalists or frail snivelers. They were all dead, indiscriminately murdered by fate, if one can even believe in such a word after an accident like this.
I followed the path of our floodlights further along the embankment to the side of the freight train. On the ground alongside it, I noticed a thick pool of red. It appeared to be the biggest bloodbath I’d seen yet—until I noticed blue vats nearby and realized, thankfully, they were all filled with strawberry preserves, which must have been part of the train’s cargo.
When I left the scene and returned to Chatsworth High, there were still families sitting outside the reunification center. They were waiting for their sons, their daughters, their fathers, their mothers to return. But I had just seen the loved ones they were waiting for under yellow tarps and white sheets. My eyes misted with my first tears of the day when I saw the hope in their faces. There was no more hope.
Twenty-five people died in the crash that day and 134 were injured. It was the worst train disaster in California history. “I’ve been in the force for twenty-one years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” the captain of the Devonshire police told us during a combination stress-management session and award ceremony afterward. “I want to thank you for all you did. If there wasn’t a response like this, more people would have died.”
That night, I noticed that the change that had begun in EMT class had taken root. I no longer wanted to just get a C.E.M.P. uniform and a little stress inoculation, and then run. I may have felt that way when I was taking the fire department’s CERT course. But now, as I lay in bed, instead of imagining how to escape the city and talk my way past barricades, I thought about what I would have done if I was the first person on the scene of the train crash and had to triage the victims until ambulances arrived. Whenever I heard the screech of car brakes outside my house, I tensed, ready to grab my EMT jump kit and run to the street if the sound of crushing steel and breaking glass followed.
My first instinct was no longer to flee in the face of disaster. Instead, if that disaster posed no threat to me, my first instinct was to stick around and try to be of service.
Somehow, since meeting Leonard Cohen, I’d accidentally completed my transformation from runner to fighter. And perhaps that made me a better survivalist, because my preparations were no longer just for my own continued existence but for that of my community.
After all, for those who look the awful truth in the eye and have the courage not to turn away, there’s only one way to carry on with life: be good to and look after each other. Because if we just give up, Leonard Cohen’s fear comes true and the spirit dies.