Thank God It’s Not Friday

Warning: Long Blog Post

I’ve had a hectic past couple of days. Friday I had a deadline to submit a piece of writing for an anthology. My problem is that I create goals for myself (write three hours per day, finish first draft of book by end of year) and get so caught up in those goals that when I have another deadline, I put it off and put it off until the last minute. I did that with the Hedgebrook application last year, and I did that with this anthology. It’s something I need to change if I ever want to get published. Anyway, I get REALLY stressed out when I have deadlines and I’m behind schedule. Stomachache stressed out.

So there I was Friday, the day of my deadline, extremely stressed out and trying to edit my submission on my laptop while riding BART from the city back to the East Bay, when—holy shit—I think my train just derailed. BART shook violently, lurched to one side, then bumped up and down until it slammed to a stop. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked up in horror. The conductor, a woman who looked to be in her late 20s, tried to move the train forward, but it lurched and bumped like we were on a bed of rocks. She slowed to 3 mph and continued bumping along the track until the train slammed to a halt once again. I was in the front seat of the front car, right behind the conductor, so I could hear her calling BART employees on her walkie talkie. She told them an air bag had burst and they told her to try to pump it back up and make it to the next station. She sent the train forward again, at 3 mph, and this time the bumping and lurching was so bad that our car started to fill with smoke. Everyone at the rear end of the car jumped up and ran toward the front of the car (where I was seated) screaming to let them of the train. The conductor told them it was just smoke from the rails and to please remain calm and sit back in their seats, and they did after many protests. A young white college student (19?) sitting next to me had taken off her iPod and was shaking with fear “Are we going to be okay?” she asked me, and I told her yes, we were going to be fine. An older Asian woman across the aisle was so frightened she was holding the hand of the African man sitting next to her. Others were crying or talking; one person tried to jump out of the train. I thought we were still under the Bay, between Embarcadero and West Oakland and for that brief moment when there was smoke and it appeared we were trapped in a burning BART car underground, I thought, “What a dumb way to die. I have been so stressed out about this submission that’s due, and now I’m going to suffocate in a BART train underground. What a waste of a good life.” I felt, in that moment, so sorry for the people who die in plane crashes, the World Trade Center, any way that they have no control over. Somehow dying of an illness, like cancer, seems more dignified than drowing or suffocating underground. And yet, if I had cancer, I would probably feel the same way. What a waste, a stupid waste. And what will I have done with my life? Written half a book? Maybe it’s time to start doing volunteer work, make my life matter to a few more people?

The conductor turned off the lights and got out of the train to see if she could fix the airbag, but she couldn’t. She tried once again to drive the train, but this time it wouldn’t move at all. The girl next to me was near tears, and I was little help in consoling her, so the Asian woman across the aisle told her to come over and hold hands with her and she did (I mention their races because it was so nice, and so unusual, to see a white girl, an Asian woman and an African man all holding hands). In fact, she not only held hands with her, she sat on her lap. I thought of “The Nine,” of which I’ve only seen the pilot, a drama about nine people who were held hostage during a bank robbery. I counted the eight people nearest me, and tried to imagine how close we would become if we were trapped down there for hours. The iPod girl and the Asian woman had shared their vulnerability. The African man, and an African-American man sitting next to him, were stoic, natural leaders, telling those who were upset that everything was going to be fine. I was quiet, trying to edit (yes, even through this I continued to edit), confident we’d get out eventually. And finally the train filled with BART employees, two in each car, then a crew of firemen arrived and the conductor announced we’d have to evacuate the train in the tunnel. There was a mentally disabled man in a wheelchair with his attendant, and I wondered how they were going to get him, and his wheelchair, out of the tunnel. I didn’t get a chance to see whether his chair was electric, or whether they could carry him out and then fold up his chair and carry it, too. One college student was carrying a trombone and worried she wouldn’t be able to take it with her. “I have a concert tonight,” she kept telling everyone. And a young man in his 20s offered to help her carry it through the tunnel. The African-American finally turned to the African man and held out his hand. “I’m Darren,” he said. the African man smiled.
“I’m xxx,” he said. (I couldn’t make out his name.) Then firemen and BART employees helped us off the train. There is about a one-foot gap between the train and a sidewalk that runs along inside the tunnel, but otherwise it’s easy to walk out of a BART underground. The guy behind me in line was taking photos with his phone. “My friends at work won’t believe me otherwise,” he said to me. “Good idea!” I said and took a few of my own. Unfortunately, I deleted my favorite one, but once I figure out how to get the others off my phone, I’ll post them here.

Once out of the tunnel, we waited on the other platform for another train until a crew of firemen came along and told us to move upstairs. Upstairs, there wasn’t a BART employee in sight, so the 100 or so of us who were on the train, plus all the new people coming into the station, stood around for the next fifteen minutes trying to figure out what to do. We finally exited and walked to the other end of the station where a BART employee told us the entire station was being shut down and we would have to find another way to our destinations. He reminded us that we were at the 12th St. station in Oakland and that the 19th St. station was just seven blocks up the street, so about 200 of us walked outside and headed up Broadway toward 19th. On the street were at least six fire trucks and one ambulance, and I wondered if anyone had had health problems, and how they gotten the disabled man off the train. Oakland residents who walked alongside us asked what was going on. “What’s up with all these people?” I heard one kid shout to his friend. And when I boarded the next Pittsburgh-Baypoint-bound train at 19th St. I was standing next to the girl with the trombone as she recounted her story to enraptured listeners. Those listeners, too, had been stuck on BART trains for the past 40 minutes. The whole system was backed up because of our train. “I was on the train,” I heard trombone girl say, and I thought of Starbucks, when the SUV came crashing through the door, and how much we love those brushes with death—as long as we come out alive—so we have stories to tell when we get back home.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Thank God It’s Not Friday

  1. Ani

    What a story…

    “and how much we love those brushes with death—as long as we come out alive—so we have stories to tell when we get back home.”

    I love this sentence…So true!

  2. Wow! Quite an experience… Glad everyone escaped unhurt..

  3. amy

    omagod… craziness. one of those things you hear about but it never actually happens to me or anyone i know. i’m just glad you’re all ok… have you been riding bart since then? does it feel any different having experienced all that?

  4. I actually had to take BART to get home that day and, yes, I’ve been riding it ever since and it’s been fine.

  5. What a harrowing experience. It made for quite a compelling story. Glad you and everyone else escaped unscathed. Did you ever find out what happened?

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