True life tragedy...psychological implications...family dynamics in crisis
| I was there to come to terms with the accident. All of us were. I didn’t have much to say about it then. Now, when I think about the accident, I am almost grateful. My story is not like the others. Then, again, the stories are all the same. We all shared one particular night.
Located in a mountainous and forested region of western Montana, with the Clark Fork River and Interstate 90 running through it, Alberton is small. Barely noticing the town, rafters and kayakers stream through the area, bouncing and thrilling to the Clark Fork River’s world-renowned Class III and IV system of rapids. Traffic rumbles and barrels along the Interstate with tourists stopping for the occasional beverage or walk along the river. Visitors seldom return.
Nothing remarkable ever happens in Alberton, Montana unless one counts the occasional drowning, a math teacher’s suicide, and father’s murder at the hands of his own daughter. But Alberton rallies around the kids no matter what.
Alberton High School graduates good kids, but few remain and few return. The basketball teams and ironman football pull in the Alberton fans, but home is elsewhere. A billboard draws readers from all over the world to a world famous bookstore. The town’s city hall is located in a historic railroad depot. Alberton, Montana’s railroad tradition remained a mystery until April, nineteen hundred and ninety-six.
Few dates rise in my consciousness evoking memories like that historic night, April tenth. Somehow, remembering that date intimates awareness, logic and reasoning. However, what I remember about that early morning catastrophe seems illogical and without reason.
Yet, ten years later, I do remember. I remember case investigators, attorneys, and claims adjustors infringing on and probing into personal privacy and pride, and the personal privacy and pride of hundreds of Alberton residents. I remember the poking and prodding that hundreds of Alberton residents and I endured during physical examinations. I remember questions, medical exams and psychiatric evaluations. My thoughts and existence, along with my friends, became a treasury for news anchors and gossipmongers.
Ten years later, I remember one week following my fortieth birthday; a train wreck in my back yard transformed my life. Less than three hundred feet from our little house built by my hands and the hands of my sons, a train more than one half mile long collided with good old Montana dirt in my backyard.
While my family and I slept, while the full moon ebbed, while the winter snow melted and the Clark Fork River rose; a “choo-choo”, a locomotive, an iron horse, a train pulling boxcars full of lumber, equipment and chemicals jumped the railroad track because of a small-undetected imperfection. I imagined thousands of railroad tracks laid end to end in America. I obsessed about one small crack in one rail disrupting the hundreds.
Each one of the hundreds is a story. Each story is unique. I often remember what I know of their stories, bits and pieces of the same disaster with different themes. However, my unique story begins with a full moon shining through my window. I remember the orbed shape silhouetted light back dropped by darkness. I remember seeing curtains of rain clouds approaching. Something was coming were my last thoughts before falling asleep.
I remember awakening jolted and dazed by the first booming impacts. I lay in bed with my arms and legs paralyzed with fear, and my mind clinging to visions of my children and home
Time after time, the silence boomed. The frame building swayed. The ground reverberated. My heart clinched and my mind cratered into itself. The fear-filled craters of my mind imagined the worst; nuclear weapons, devastating earthquakes, incinerated children, flattened forests, impending death and the world swallowing into itself. My little house felt like “ground zero”.
My children woke startled and confused as their beds rocked and swayed. Three boys with questions in their blue eyes scampered from the loft. The questions I could not answer pummeled my heart. My arms reached for them, and clutched them close to me.
After what seemed an hour of tortuous noise and paralyzing fear, I looked into three sets of wide open, shocked innocent eyes. I knew they were fine, but not really.
As the silence continued and rain began falling, I wanted to know what was happening in the world, the cause of the explosions. I needed answers to the same questions my sons’ eyes asked. I peered into the blackness, into the low-lying clouds and mists. The blackness filled everything. I recognized the contrast. Only shadowed trees moved in and around themselves piercing what seemed impenetrable.
With my eyes wide and panic peaking in my soul, I attempted an outer calm. (At least that is what I wanted.) I moved from window to window, operating on full auto-mom, in a trance but aware of every sound, movement and feeling. I quivered on the inside; fear pushed my steps towards the solid handmade door. Realization and imagination belabored my steps and I hesitated. I wanted to believe that all is well in the world, again.
As hope began ‘to spring eternal’ in my heart, the fumes began penetrating the walls. Fumes with the vaguely familiar odor of bleach triggered action and anxiety. I dressed manically in jeans and flannel shirt. My sons wore sweatpants, of course. I did not think about coats or boots. The vague odor became overpowering and fear strangled common sense as we ran to our car covering our faces. Unknown to us at the time what poisons drifted in the air and fell with the raindrops; all we knew was we choked when we breathed. Our skin and eyes burned with each raindrop, and tears made it worse.
I left everything but my children and my dog. I left pictures and mementos, my children’s stuffed toys, baseball cards and books. We left our home, our land, our trees and our safety
I drove, headlights barely puncturing the strange misty darkness. The car’s windshield wipers cleared the raindrops (acid rain), and the defroster blew toxic fumes into the vehicle. As I drove, I battled an intense desire to shout an alarm, “Danger! Danger! Danger!” The best I could do was honk the car horn hoping the annoying sound was enough to awaken any sleeping neighbors. I wanted my friends and neighbors safe, but I wanted my boys out of harm’s way, first.
I remember the drive to safety, less than one mile. The Alberton Firehouse seemed a castle in mist. The firemen, gracious and unbelieving, until the fire alarm shocked them. A few friends and neighbors gathered to comfort and be comforted. Alberton is again notorious for tragedy.
I remember those moments immediately following the explosions without fogginess or forgetfulness; forever tattooed into my psyche, forever effecting decisions. Remembering the next several years is the hard part.
Like the engine of a train, my life chugged and blew steam; starting and stopping, carrying back curving loads. Losing traction and with nothing to hold onto, I spun my wheels with a heavy load. My steam, black with the soot of my world, burned and scalded. The now, infamous Alberton chemical spill is my life crashed into the Montana dirt next to the train.
Afterward, when the catastrophe settled into routine, I trudged through years, cried secret tears, and cringed with inner fear. I struggled to put my life back on track, tired of living, afraid to die. What I did following the train wreck was a terrible expression of my anger and insecurity. Struggling the way I did shredded apart the family that was my only balance in the world.
Now, I can say my life changed because of a train wreck. In the years following the accident, I faced many truths about myself. I looked at my life, made some changes. I negotiated with myself. I examined feelings, past experiences, and questions. I asked questions of myself that I feared. I received answers that I feared even more.
I lay dormant and latent until the train exploded into my life. My life now has a touch of color. I welcome the moonlights return and see the darkness for what it is, restful and benign.