A Memorable Day
The Montauk train leaves for New York four times a day, carrying vacationers and day-trippers on their journey home. The last train on a Sunday night leaves Montauk station, affectionately know as “the End,” at 7:33 pm. It is almost always on time.
The tracks cut through the Napeague stretch for about ten miles until the train makes its first stop in Amagansett. It travels through a deeply wooded area, with the highway to its south and the bay to its north. Normally, the train races quickly and quietly over tracks that cross remote trails leading to isolated beaches. Finding these trails means knowing about the small gap in the bushes just before reaching Cyril’s, heading out of town, immediately after the fork between old and new Montauk Highway. The trails are a haven to those fleeing the local craziness to explore, quietly fish, watch a sunset or relax. The silence along the way is profound and reaching a destination is comforting. Rarely do the trains, trails and travelers ever converge. If they do, even if only for a few seconds, the tranquility is interrupted.
At 7:15 pm people start arriving on the platform to catch the last train on an otherwise quiet night. It is Sunday evening, Memorial Day weekend, 2002.
On this particular weekend, my brother-in-law and his family had come to visit us. We had spent the day at the beach, eaten dinner at the Harvest and wrapped up at John’s ice cream shop. Being avid fisherman, and opportunists, we suggested the two of us take a break to do some surfcasting. It was just before sunset, so we hoped the fish would be biting. I knew the perfect spot, a beach on a trail just north of the tracks, along the stretch. We agreed to rendezvous with the families later, after we had a chance to try our luck.
At 7:25 pm, people begin boarding the train. The engines are turned on and the engineer goes through his checklist before he signals to the conductor: all is ready.
I was excited to show off a new favorite fishing spot, so I asked my brother in law if he would drive so I could watch the trail and guide us. I sometimes missed the turn when looking for the spot and ended up at Cyril’s. If this happened, we would have stopped for a drink and never gone fishing, never headed down the trail. Never crossed the tracks. But this time I found the turn with no difficulty. We were in luck.
At precisely 7:33 pm, the conductor calls out “all aboard.” A few seconds later, the wheels turn and the train pulls out, ever so slowly, gathering speed as it clears the station.
We drove up the trail over the hill. Now all I had to do now was remember where to make a left, and then cross over the tracks before steering right and heading to the beach. We were almost there. My anticipation was rising. Visions of bent rods, stripers on the line, and a chance to bring home some fish, or at least a good story.
The train was now picking up speed. In a few minutes it would hit the open stretch and begin accelerating. It would arrive in Amagansett shortly.
Just ahead of us, the trail would rise up and cross the tracks. Tires, dirt and metal touch for a few brief moments. No road signs, no lights, no markers at all. As we approached, I was horrified to see a mini-van with a family of four coming up the hill, intending to the cross from the opposite side. To me, this was an unexpected intrusion. Like us, they were a few seconds from where the trail would cross over the tracks. Each car came to a complete stop. There was only room for one car to pass. Imagine my surprise. It made me angry.
The train is now accelerating, traveling at 70 miles per hour. Passengers are settling down and getting reacquainted with favorite books or papers, or beginning to sleep.
I thought we had arrived first and should have the right of way. I thought the other car should at least move back, and offer to let us pass. My brother in law was more compassionate. Without hesitation, as if offering an elder his seat on the bus, he instinctively indicated they should pass. He hastily backed up the car, creating an awkward angle, with the rear of our vehicle now positioned in the woods, giving way, so the mini-van could pass.
The engineer sips a glass of water and looks out the window at the bay for a few brief seconds; enjoying the sunset as he has each time he navigates the stretch. Ahead of him a long bend transitions to a straight stretch of track for several more miles. As he comes out of the turn, he leans on the accelerator and reaches full speed.
They passed cautiously over the tracks, stopped in front of us, gave a courtesy wave, and headed down the trail. Our car was still in their view as we excitedly pulled back onto the dirt trail. As we began to cross, I looked out onto the tracks and saw it. So close I could practically touch it, yet invisible. No whistles or sounds. No alarm. No flashing lights. I could feel the vibration. In these final seconds, I turned and spoke in an eerily calm voice. “There is a train. It’s going to hit us.” An eternity passed. It was impossible to reverse now. Then, as time stood still, the train hit us at full speed. Lighting from a clear blue sky.
When a train hits a car, only a few things can happen. None good. Cars are crushed immediately or spin violently, only to be dragged or struck again, sometimes wedged under the locomotive. Our hood exploded into the air, spinning 100 feet down the tracks, the engine folded up in front of our eyes, and the glass shattered. We covered our faces, lifted our feet, and clenched our jaws. Families flashed before our eyes as we were thrown off the tracks, hit only once, coming to a stop in the woods.
The train did not stop on impact. It took a few minutes before squealing breaks and a panicked engineer could stop it. Smoke was everywhere. Passengers lurched forward and newspapers flew into the air.
The engineer and conductors were sprinting up the tracks as we gathered our strength and stepped out of the car. Our legs were shaking, but holding us steady. We hugged. We could not speak. Amazingly, at least physically, we were not harmed. We were shaken by what might have been, while in the same instant, warming to the reality of what had actually had occurred. We had survived.
The people in the mini – van bore witness to the entire ordeal, watching the scene unfold in their rearview mirror. Stunned. The mother leaped out, reaching us first. She was screaming, crying. It could have been her family that was struck. It could have ended very differently. We assured them we were okay and privately rejoiced that it wasn’t us gazing back at them in our mirror.
We could hear sirens now, getting closer. The engineer had called this in immediately. The police said they had never seen anything like it. A car destroyed by a train. Two people standing, sober, calm, neither needing medical attention. The police took statements, filled out a report and eventually offered us a ride home. No taxi would ever have found us, let alone agreed to come get us.
We finally arrived back at the house, quite later than expected. We sat our wives down at the kitchen table and told them we had a bit of a story to tell. Not exactly a fish story. Something else. One of the children noticed the police car leaving the driveway. Oh my god. What happened? Are you okay? We both nodded our heads.
That night in New York, the train from Montauk arrived 45 minutes late. Several of the passengers had a story of their own to tell.