On August 21, 2012, just as the new day came into being, a train derailed in Ellicott City, Maryland. Two young girls were sitting on the train bridge over Main Street and were crushed to death in the accident. I’ve been thinking about those girls and that accident ever since it happened. The metal stairs you climbed to reach the train track bridge were familiar to me. I trudged up and down those stairs everyday for more than a year when I lived in there. Mine was a converted apartment in the old Patapsco Hotel right next to the tracks. Every few weeks I had to straighten items I hung on the wall, the vibration of the many trains passing day and night had them listing to the right or left.
The girls took a photo of themselves sitting on the bridge just minutes before the accident. In the photo their bare feet extended out and hovered over Main Street. I know that view. How you could feel so much bigger, more powerful sitting up there. I went there many times and sat in that same spot. I loved being above and removed from the bustle of cars and people trailing below. There are some times in life where you need that different view, an altered perspective. You walk along the train tracks and sit on the edge of a bridge because you aren’t supposed to do it and that feels freeing and daring all at once.
I’ve cried in that same spot, tried to summon courage sitting where they sat. Wondered what my future would look like. I’ve watched people I knew wander underneath my feet, oblivious to my presence above them. They never bothered to look up. I’ve been elated on that same spot, charged with life. But mostly, when I lived there, I sat there feeling broken and adrift in life. I went through all seasons – suffering the heat and humidity of a summer night and reached down in mid-winter to feel the chill of the steel humming in my hand.
How can it feel like a close call for me from the distance of more than a decade? Surely, I’ve done more dangerous things than sit on that bridge. Things that should have left a mark, not let me go unscathed. But these girls didn’t get so lucky and I’m the sort that keeps that image of them as an anchor, a place to visit in my mind and wonder: WHY?
Those tracks have seen the marks of history. It was the spot where the steam engine raced a horse, a small civil war skirmish took place there too. On the stone pillars that support the bridge are markers of the floods from hurricanes: Agnes, Andrews and a list of angry sounding storm. Is Sandy there now, too? Now there is another event, the train derailment of 2012. Will there be a marker for those girls put up? So we can all remember:
It is the idea that you never see it coming — that pivot point of life and death. One moment changes to the next and with it everything can be forever altered.