Off the Rails

train wreckIt would be hard for anyone to understand the sensation of a 30 ton steam locomotive sliding helplessly across the concourse of the Paris Montparnasse Station and out through the wall into Place de Rennes. Not difficult for me to remember, however, since I was the engine driver.

It was late in October [the history books say October 22, 1895] and we were trying to make up some lost time. This was the Granville-Paris Express, and although we left Granville on time, we had fallen behind schedule. It was my decision to increase the speed to get us into Paris on time. There were twelve cars in the train and 131 passengers. I came into the station and immediately knew that the train was approaching too fast and that I would have to apply the Westinghouse brake. To my surprise the air brake failed so all I had was the train brakes, but they were not enough to stop our momentum.

locomotive 2We broke through the buffer stop and began a horrifying slide across the concourse. I remember looking up and seeing panic-stricken faces as the giant locomotive kept surging forward. It was only 100 feet from the buffer to the outside wall but it seemed to go on forever and I was helpless to stop the train. The noise was deafening as the wheels ground into the stone floor and screeched like crazed banshees. Passengers in the station who were not in the path of the giant engine held their hands over their ear.

The jolt of hitting the two foot thick walls threw me backwards and then I tried to brace for what was coming next. I knew that the wall was not going to stop twelve cars and a locomotive. The engine plunged downward thirty feet into the street, and this time I was thrown forward where I tried to brace myself for the impact.

By the grace of God, the engine and first car were the locomotive 3only ones to go over the edge, so all the passenger cars remained in the station. Sadly, and for me a source of eternal guilt, Marie Augustine Aguilard was killed by falling building debris. She was filling in for her husband at his newstand while he went to get the evening papers. Imagine his shock and despair when he returned to find his wife had been killed by standing in his place.

I was fined 50 francs and sentenced to two months in prison but was never obliged to serve the time. I know that people will look at the picture of the train wreck for many years to come, but they will never see the terror that I saw in everyone’s eyes as the engine roared through the station. And they will never know the shame that I will take to my grave.

Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept. He's written a mystery novel, which therefore makes him a pre-published author.

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