Kathy reached across the table to grab her bottle of water as the train lurched around a corner. Sam clearing thought she was reaching towards him as he flinched and shrunk back into his seat.
The silence between them are had grown as the train moved towards the north. The awkwardness was inevitable, but they both clearly wished to avoid it. Sam looked out the window, intent on escaping her gaze which he knew was fixed upon him.
All of a sudden he was thrown forward across the table as Kathy was swung out of her seat and into the aisle. Along the gangway bags littered the carriage, people looked up and saw the shock and confusion etched across faces down the train.
It seemed that everyone turned and peered out the window to see why the train had come to such an abrupt halt. Those who were on the left hand side clearly found something of interest as most of the passengers joined them. The carriage ahead near the front of the train had skewed away from the track, while the one immediately ahead was still on the track but veering towards the left.
The crush of bodies towards the window seemed to force the carriage to lurch, seeing the twisted wreckage ahead people started forcing their way to the doors which remained locked tight. The sharpest among the packages found the hammer behind the glass that was designed and placed to help smash the glass. They started hitting away at the corners, as people became more desperate to escape. The occasional glance towards the forward carriages in the diminishing light of dusk paid testament to the danger that they were in. The gathering gloom suddenly exploded into light as a fire burst out of the windows of the stricken train now on its side on the grass verge.
The camber of the next carriage reached unsustainable levels and as it began its descent onto the embankment the panic in Sam and Kathy’s carriage went from a stable frustrated sense of needing to get out of here, to a mad frenzy.
The moments that had gone before dragged out over an epoch in Sam’s mind, what had happened in less that a minute seemed like a lifetime. And the crowds that forced themselves towards the door in the vain hope that they would succeed in getting free, they achieved little other than escalate the panic still further.
It was clear that the carriage was about to follow the fate of the others as the buckled train lost contact with the tracks and pulled each successive carriage away from the rails like dominoes falling off a table. But it was the fire that scared Sam the most, he could see the fireball ahead that engulfed the first carriage and desperately prayed to God that they would be spared the same fate. It was odd Sam thought in the most inappropriate of moments that his prayer was not for the safety of those in most danger but for himself. His selfishness knew no bounds, as did that of his fellow passengers who thought nothing of pushing each other to the side as they tried to make their escape.
The two passenger too his side were valiantly trying to break the glass to engineer their own exit, but their triumph would not be individual but benefit them all. It was only that as they started to make progress, the veins of a crack began to appear from the corners of the pane, he realised that the train would fall onto that side, making their efforts worthless and any attempt to flee through that window hazardous as the train would likely collapse onto anyone caught beside the train.
He decided that the time had come for action. Sam glanced towards Kathy searching for some vague sense of validation of his impending move but she was petrified, she had nothing to offer him and he knew that he would need to act quickly. He stood up and tried to summon his most authoritative voice, the one he usually reserved for the rare opportunities he got to preach.
“Hey everyone, listen up.” The assembled masses did not comply immediately, so Sam tried again.
“Everyone, be quiet for a minute. We’ve got to work together if we’re going to get out of here. You’ve seen what’s happened up ahead, you’ve seen the carriage fall on its side, and pretty soon we’re going to tip over. We can get out, it’s not going to be that hard to break the windows but we need to do the ones on this side.” His eyes rested on the two men almost through the window to politely suggest his correction. “We’ve got to make sure we’re ready for when the train falls over, it’s going to happen any second, let’s get all the baggage onto that side, so it doesn’t fall on us, let’s move over so we don’t fall, if we all are ready we can the start work on getting out once we’ve fallen over. Hold onto the hammers, or anything else hard that will help us escape.”
Just as Sam was finishing his impromptu speech the tilt on the carriage increased once again to reinforce the urgency of his point. His fellow passengers suddenly threw themselves into action, moving bags, grabbing phones they could not bring themselves to be parted from, parents looking after children, making sure they were as safe as they could be in this developing disaster zone. And with a final lurch the train started to fall, he went to yell for everyone to hold on tight, but Sam could not find the breath in his lungs as he reached across and placed his arms around Kathy to brace her for the fall.
And then they were settled once again. Bags that had not been stowed securely had fallen upon them, a few people were crying in agony and pain, but most were unharmed.
Kathy turned toward Sam, and decided to take over, “Who’s injured, is anyone trapped?” She wasn’t sure what to do next as a few people yelped to indicate their predicament. “Is there a doctor or a nurse anywhere?” As the silence followed she felt more helpless than ever, “If there’s anyone near you who is injured can you find out what’s wrong, and if anyone’s in a really bad way let me know.”
As this stimulated a buzz of activity she had no idea what she would do if anyone were to be seriously injured and she was informed. Kathy turned to Sam, “We need to get some people to break these windows above us.”
“Can we all move away from the windows at each end.” Sam bellowed through the chaos, “If you’ve got anything hard or sharp to use to break the window, help out, but the glass is going to fall on top of us.” The pair of men who had been wielding the hammer so affectively before admitting to dropping their hammer as they had shifted away from the cracking window to avoid the avalanche of baggage.
Sam grapped the rail of the overhead compartment and swung with his full force towards the window that was now directly above him. His feet bounced straight off the glass without making an impact. He gave way to one of the men who now replaced his lost hammer with a fire extinguisher and who’s resourceful but futile effort seemed to have succeeded to break the glass which was now between them and the ground.
The progress on the window was slow and hindered by the height of the window now it comprised the roof. Sam piled suitcases on top of one another as a particularly aggressive young man clambered between the seats to gain purchase before smacking the window with all the force he could muster.
Kathy looked on helpless, yet remembered her thoughts just before the crash. In rash decision she opted for her pink heels, before the chaos that ensued she had wondered what impression she would be giving to her interviewers as she described her passion for reaching the lost of Benin while wear six inch steel tipped stilettos. But Kathy pulled them off her feet and handed them to Sam who was bemused by the sudden unexpected and bizarre gift.
“Do you want me to hold them, can I put them down, we’re trying to break the window.”
“Look at the heels,” barked Kathy, “they can do quite a lot of damage.” Sam flipped them over and shuddered at the preposterous notion that in the middle of a train wreck which they were trying to escape he was learning about ladies footwear.
Sam took one and handed the other to a willing helper and they started work on a second window as the first one was crowded and progress was painfully slow. He swung the shoe with all the aggression he could summon aware that Kathy was watching. As she had handed him the stiletto he had noticed her scent, so fragrant against the crush of bodies around him, in such contrast to the sweat he could feel running down his back.
As he continued his seemingly futile quest to pierce the glass with the shoe he wondered how it could be that not only was he thinking about his new found attraction to the girl he had forced himself to despise, but also that he could find the space to reflect on this attraction and it’s peculiar development. All of life seemed to have been telescoped into a few minutes, if they escaped this probable oblivion what hope was there for romance forged in the desperation of disaster. It would be different tomorrow when life was back to normal so there was no point worrying about the the instant and unexpected infatuation of today. But then again they might not escape, he had noticed the smoke starting to seep into the carriage from the adjoining section, their time was not without limit.
Maybe if they got out there would be somewhere for Sam to take his relationship with Kathy, but for now he just concentrated on giving his best to get her out of this death hole. Sam didn’t look round to see if Kathy was still watching him, but allowed his mind to drift once more and consider if she was awakening to any feelings towards him brought on by the urgent immediacy of the current situation. If he had looked around he would have seen that Kathy was not there. In her stockinged feet she had moved along the carriage to see who needed assistance. As she climbed over seats and bags and identified those in greatest need she realised that her they were not cut off from the world.
It had not occurred to either Kathy or Sam to call for help. After all, this was a train crash, surely someone else would have already dialled 999. But as Kathy found a jumper loose among the luggage to use to bandage a badly bleeding leg she heard a plethora of phone calls going on around her. For many calling for help was the cathartic thing to do. They were clearly being told that help was on its way and they were aware of the situation, but the calls kept on going out echoing the same concerns over and over again. For others it was clearly a call to a partner, or a child, to a mother concerned about a daughter travelling home alone.
Kathy thought to find her phone, not knowing who she ought to contact, but searching for some obscure security in the midst of present danger and imminent destruction. It wasn’t the call button she hit with urgency, she had not thought who needed to know best that she was alive but in a perilous position. Kathy too had seen the smoke starting to fill up the cabin. She starred at her phone, almost waiting for someone to be sufficiently concerned to call to find out if she was safe. In the moments since the crash it was of dubious possibility that anyone would know yet of the carnage wrecked along a stretch of railway near Stoke-on-Trent.
Sam yelled down towards Kathy, “Are you on twitter? Can you check what anyone’s saying about the crash?” It hadn’t occurred to her, she had dismissed the news sites because they couldn’t possible be on site yet, or have any idea what was going on, or whether they were about to be rescued. Kathy searched for train crash and her screen started to populate with tweets from passengers throughout the train, from residents of the nearby houses, and the popularly retweeted message from Virgin Trains informing customers that there would be severe delays and cancellations between Milton Keynes and Crewe including services into London due to a serious crash. A blaze of fury hit Kathy as she read that, were they more concerned about the tardiness of their journey or the risk to life that was currently being battled in her close vicinity.
It did not bring the elucidation that she had hoped, there were tweets from those behind who’s carriages remained upright, from those ahead who were also desperately trying to escape and the harrowing tales of onlookers who could see the blaze which engulfed the front two carriages.
They had made it through the window. It was Kathy’s stilettos which had done the job, her shoes were not fit for wearing, ripped around the ankle, scuffed across the sole, the tips, worn down through repeated hammering on the glass. But perhaps such concern was a little facile given the prospect of escape. People started climbing out and helping each other out of the train. A minor scuffle broke out as two guys tried to force their way from the other end of the coach to get out ahead of everyone else.
Sam later reflected that the ordeal which lasted less than fifteen minutes from crash to escape had shown the best and the worst of human nature. It showed the endurance, the sacrifice as men put themselves at risk to get others out before them, it showed the courtesy of lifting an elderly man up through the window, hand over hand until he was out an able to walk along the side of the train now masquerading as the roof. It showed the fierce selfishness that can come out in intense moments of crisis, paralleled only by the selflessness of the two men who having escaped their own torment set to work on helping people out of the neighbouring carriage.
Sam restricted himself and his generosity to helping Kathy out, easing her out of the window and as they rested on the side of the carriage before embarking on the descent onto the bank and onto safety, he grasped the true horror that had unfolded as the train carriages were sprawled across the rails at right angles with the current carriage and the one ahead tipped onto their side.
When they made it to the ground, Sam lifted Kathy off her feet without asking, and carried her up the slop towards the line that the police had freshly created to restrain spectators to the macabre scene before them. He collapsed as he reached the steps of the ambulance positioned to receive survivors. He turned to look once again as the raging fires burned aware that there would be too few of them.
The two men who had remained behind to help survivors out of the next carriage were still at the window lifting the frail and able bodied alike to safety when the fire caught hold and they lifted one last lady to safety before succumbing to the flames.