Monday Morning, September 15, 2008
When things go wrong, terribly wrong, in the on-stage world of live music, we call it a “train wreck.” Musicians call on the phrase when someone forgets the lyric, or the band hits the wrong note or one of the players launches out in the wrong key. It’s only a train wreck, really, because someone missed a cue and it messed up the performance and when you are on stage you can’t do it over.
Performers don’t like train wrecks.
It’s an apt metaphor, I suppose. But the only real damage to performers in the case of a botched gig is psychological. We may be dealing with a damaged career, but more likely a damaged ego. Everyone will get over it soon enough. Our metaphors are often inflated exaggerations. Real train wrecks are another matter entirely.
So when the Metrolink commuter train and the Union Pacific freight train collided on a routine Friday afternoon last week, we got a powerful, potent visual of the real thing.
Years ago, I had a friend who worked for Santa Fe Railroad. A veteran engineer, or driver as he liked to say, John was promoted to instructor. He trained engineers, preparing them for every possible contingency on the tracks. He talked about the enormous liability drivers carry every day. “Don’t let the monotony fool you,” he said. “Driving a train is ninety-nine percent sheer boredom. It’s the one percent of sheer terror that you’ve got to be ready for.”
He invited us to come visit him at the simulator. I brought our son, Kevin, along back when he was about ten years old. It was a large interior space that contained a mock-up of a full sized diesel engine facing a twenty-foot tall video screen and surround sound speakers in all four corners. The controls were live, the accelerator and the brakes and the dials, and the steel floor would vibrate as the engine roared and the heavy steel wheels rolled along imaginary rails. Kevin sat in the engineer’s seat. He grabbed the controls. John talked mainly about the dangers of too much speed in the wrong places – down a hill or around the bend. The enormous mass (a physicist’s term) if allowed to get out of control, will inflict incalculable damage.
We see and hear those trains every day in our little town. A main line is barely a mile away from our house. They roll by, whistle blowing, across the main north-south intersections while traffic lines up, waiting, gates down, red lights flashing, bells ringing. As we flew in a private plane just last week, we saw one of those Union Pacific freighters from the air, nearly a mile long snaking through the town, delivering consumer goods from our massive Port in Los Angeles to some distant Wal-Mart.
The Metrolink driver on Friday afternoon was not, apparently, trained by my friend John. The evidence mounts. The word on the street is that the engineer was text-messaging as he drove past two red lights which on any routine run would signal him to pull off on a siding and let the long, heavy freight train coming from the opposite direction go by. Why the conductor also failed to notice the signal remains a mystery. A dispatcher from some remote location, caught the oversight on his computer screen and radioed his warning. But the transmission arrived after impact.
When I first saw the wreckage, that aerial shot from the news helicopter hovering over the scene, I couldn’t discern much detail. It was later that I understood enormity of the impact. The Metrolink’s diesel engine was buried two thirds of the way into the passenger car of the Metrolink, pushed back when it was instantly thrown into reverse by the crushing mass of Union Pacific engine and the freight cars behind. They both lay on their side as smoldering wreckage. In John’s world, this would be a worst case scenario.
I was driving across town then our local news station broadcast a hastily called news-conference in which Metrolink spokesperson Denise Tyrrell dropped a verbal bombshell at the microphone. Clearly upset, she announced the unmistakable conclusion that the cause of the horrible crash was human error. The Metrolink engineer, not a Metrolink employee, missed a red light. She apologized for her company, which she said, was fully responsible. She seemed distraught, as though this tragic case of neglect destroyed everything she’d worked for as a community relations specialist and she simply could not keep the unvarnished truth to herself. She told the world.
I remember wondering – did she get permission from her superiors? This was not the carefully crafted public statement reviewed by attorneys and insurance executives and the public relations professionals. We are accustomed to hearing someone say in measured tones, “We cannot release any speculative information regarding the cause until we have a full and complete investigation into every contingency.”
But this time, the person paid to speak for the company spoke for her colleagues and community in a rare moment of uncharacteristic candor. It was straight talk. Heart-felt. Agonizing truth. Unfiltered. And somehow, redemptive.
I read this morning that Denise Tyrrell resigned her post. Her superiors had not approved her press-conference statement. The legal department was certainly enraged. Associated Press put it this way: “Tyrrell says she has quit because a Metrolink board statement called her announcement ‘premature.'”
On this Monday morning, in the aftermath of yet another tragedy, as leaders, we think of the families of the victims and the many more in hospital rooms battling for their lives. Our hearts and our prayers go out to the victims. One passenger on the train who lived to tell his story relayed with raw emotion the moments following the impact. He looked piercingly at his interviewer and asked, “Is this what my whole life was leading up to?” He paused to reflect. “Ya know?… Is this what my whole life was leading up to?”
Train wrecks trigger the big questions.
Real train wrecks get our attention because those metaphorical train wrecks happen in our real life. Let’s face it. Maybe you had one recently – a train wreck of your own. You are this very morning still in a daze. Your world has been rocked. It was more than a silly missed cue on stage. It was a head-on collision with a mile long freight train. You had nowhere to go.
Let’s learn from Denise Tyrrell. Tell the truth about what you know. And then, go ahead. Ask the big questions.
Some new doors will open. There are answers. There’s a whole team of rescue professionals. Many of them volunteers. Trust me.
Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp, 2008