Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Part 6: Midnight on the Pittsburgh Express

2baboonsOkay, (hopefully!) this will be my final installment in this series, at least for awhile. I’ve covered my rather unique history of surviving accidents on foot, on bicycles, in cars, and even in planes. I haven’t yet touched trains. So, in this final piece, I think I’ll chat briefly about my second near-accident (this time in a passenger jet, in South Africa), and then close with a trainwreck.

First, South Africa. I’ve already mentioned that my daughter Mandy and I spent a good portion of the summer of 2006 there. We used a lovely South African B&B/lodge in Johannesburg as a home base, then moved out from there to uncover, write about and photograph HIV/AIDS-related story resource for World Vision. I was the writer, Mandy was the photographer. We visited several different nations, including Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in addition to spending a lot of time in South Africa. (We were also scheduled to visit Lesotho and Swaziland during the trip, but those visits were cancelled for reasons I’ll discuss in another post.) Our final week there we turned into a vacation, taking our small rental car on a long drive from Johannesburg (or “Jo’Burg,” as it’s frequently referred to) to Capetown, and there around the southern coast of the continent, toward Durbin, then back to Jo’Burg before departing for home. That in itself was a fascinating journey, with two near-misses in the rental car.

The first came when we were whizzing along a highway close to the coast. During our time in South Africa we had seen signs warning to watch out for (and not approach or feed) baboons, but despite a lot of hiking in the Drakensburgs, we had not yet seen baboons. We wouldn’t have approached them, at any rate, because a good friend at World Vision had a much-too-close incident involving an attack by a baboon that jumped down on his back (while he was doing his morning devotions on the veranda of a lodge) and shredded it. He finally fought him off with a chair, but had to get 200 stitches to repair the damage.

So with this in mind, we were on the lookout, but not fully prepared for our “close encounter” as we came around a bend doing about 90 kilometers per hour (which I think was the posted limit, about 55 or 60 miles per hour). There was a large tree on the left which cast a shadow onto the road. Suddenly, a mere 10 or 20 yards in front of me, I saw silhouetted against the jungle behind what I thought were two people, kneeling in the center of my lane.

I just laid on the brakes with all my force, locking up the wheels in a screaming skid, but there was no where to go. Fortunately for the “people” in the center of the lane, they sprang opposite directions, and our car whizzed right between them, narrowly missing both on the left and right by a matter of inches.

I got a good look at the face of the one on the left, a mere foot or two from my window, as we skidded by still doing probably 40 or so. It wasn’t human. Baboon.

I’m guessing they weighed a sturdy 50 or 60 pounds apiece, I’m not sure. The damage that would occurred, to both them and our small rental car, at that speed, would have been significant.

The second incident, occurring two nights later, was really more frightening and also illustrates some of the hazards of driving on rural roads in South Africa, where you are up against not only baboons, but trucks, people, horses, cows, and even hippopotami and elephants! (You definitely would NOT want to hit one of those.) Once during our journey we saw, laying off to the right side of the road, the back side of a horse. Literally, half a horse. The road was splattered with blood and tissue for about 50 yards, then we saw the front half laying on the left side!

So fortunately, I was on the lookout when, later that night and in pitch, moonless and streetlight-less blackness on a long stretch, I suddenly saw a large black shape in the darkness loom before me.

Mandy, who happened to be awake, screamed. Once again, I was doing about 60, and this time I instinctively realized that merely stepping on the brakes would plow us right into whatever-it-was. So, instead, I jerked the car from the left lane (which is the side of the road everyone drives on in South Africa, as in the UK) onto the right, into oncoming traffic.

Fortunately for us, and others, there was no oncoming traffic. We whizzed past a large flatbed semi-truck, chugging along on the left doing about 10 or 20 miles per hour in the pitch blackness, no lights whatsoever — no headlights, no tail-lights, no reflectors, no nothing.

After that, we slowed down quite a bit, until we found a bed and breakfast to spend the night at.

Circling Jo’Burg

sa-expressBut the main thing I wanted to share about our time in South Africa was an interesting ride we had on a jet. I think we were flying back from Ndola, Zambia. It was a fairly modern, two-engine passenger jet, holding maybe 50 passengers. There was one flight attendant. She came back and chatted with us pleasantly during the trip, but there was something about her demeanor that perked my attention. I then began to notice that she spent a lot of time conferring up in the cockpit with the pilot and co-pilot, then would return and chat with various passengers. She seemed a little on edge, but didn’t say anything alarming.

I could see once we arrived at the airport in Johannesburg that we weren’t descending. Instead, the pilots put the jet into a lazy pattern, circling the airport. Around and around and around we went, for at least an hour, with no explanation whatsoever.

Various passengers, some of whom I assumed did this route regularly, began to take notice of the unusual delay. Many waved the flight attendant over and asked her about it. I could see her reassuring them. I’m not sure what she was saying (it was usually in Afrikaans), but I could tell they were skeptical.

You have to understanding, Jo’Burg is a fairly large airport, with the city about the size of Los Angeles; but it doesn’t have NEARLY as much traffic going in and out as LAX does. I think it was a Friday morning, and we didn’t really see any other planes in the sky with us.

After about an hour or so, the flight attendant came on and told us, in several languages, to buckle up tight for our landing.

The descent was as sudden and startlingly rapid as any I’d ever experienced. Soon we were nearing the runway. What happened next was VERY out of the ordinary.

We landed, moving very fast, on the back two sets of wheels, but the pilot kept the nose up in the air. We were screaming down the runway, and I began to suspect the pilot was preparing for an emergency take-off. As we were about halfway down, the nose still up in the air, we passed nearest the control tower. As we did, I also saw a large number of fire engines and ambulances, off to the right, lights flashing. They immediately pulled out behind us to follow us down the runway.

The pilot then began to set the nose of the plane down — very, very gently. When it was solidly down, he threw the flaps up, stood on the brakes, and reversed the engines. The sudden deceleration, with so little runway left, threw us forward into our seatbelts.

The jet skidded to a stop, twirling slightly at the very far end of the runway. It all happened so suddenly we didn’t really have time to be afraid, though in hindsight we should have been! I was curious about the fire engines, and unbuckling quickly in case we needed to make an emergency exit. I saw them all pull up from behind, then shut their lights off and head away to one side. Apparently, whatever the emergency was, was over.

We were in the very back, and the last ones to disembark. The flight attendant was very pleasant and wished us goodbye. (She seemed relieved!) And as we walked down the gangway, there were four or five blue-suited engineers waiting eagerly at the bottom. The moment we stepped off, they rushed up the steps and began talking excitedly with the crew.

Whatever THAT was about, we never received an official explanation. But as I described the experience later, to professional pilots, they agreed a nosewheel sensor light of some sort had probably come on and the crew couldn’t tell whether or not the nosewheel was actually locked down into position for landing. As they passed the control tower and emergency vehicles, they probably received a visual confirmation that it looked like it was engaged, so they went ahead and put the jet down on it gently. Had it not been down, I’m assuming they would have taken off again and circled until the runway could be prepared with foam for a possible belly landing.

And finally … Amtrak!

train-vs-pickup-truckI’ve had not one, but two interesting experiences on a train. The first was in California, heading up to Seattle with my family on a vacation. It was very hot, and when we were in the desert, right in the middle of nowhere, the train suddenly stopped. I went to the bathroom, and there was smoke coming up through the toilets.

The crew told us to stay where we were and not to get off. It was VERY hot, with the air conditioning either off or not working. Many passengers had opened windows and were hanging out as far as they could to try and catch a breeze. After a time of sitting there, we were grateful when the train then continued on its journey.

But tbe most interesting “incident” occured when I was on a late-night run between Chicago and Pittsburgh, where I was planning to meet my daughter, who lives several hours east of there. It can be very expensive to fly into Pittsburgh, and I saved quite a bit of money on that trip by flying into Chicago then taking Amtrak the rest of the way.

I also find trains quite present and relaxing. I was sound asleep, about 2 a.m., when I was suddenly awoken by the train conductor standing on the brakes. It took a long time, but we finally screeched to a complete halt.

The compartment was maybe 25% full, and the other passengers and I all looked at one another like “what now?” But after a few minutes, a staff member burst through the front door of our compartment, which was the last of 7 passenger compartments on that train. “My God!” he shouted. “Did you see that? We just plowed right through that truck!”

He ran to the back window to take a look, and we followed. Sure enough, looking back toward the intersection … which was a ways behind us now, but flooded with lights from parked vehicles … we could see the remains of what looked like a pickup truck, stewn about on both sides of the intersection. We hadn’t even felt the collision, though I can’t say the same for the occupant of the pickup truck.

Fortunately, and surprisingly, he survived, but I doubt if he’ll every try to run the barricades at a railroad crossing in the middle of the night again. The train, which was doing about 80 mph at the time, struck his vehicle a few feet behind the passenger compartment, and literally cut it in half. How he survived, I’ll never know.

After a few minutes, more emergency vehicles than I’ve ever seen in one place arrived. One of them pulled out alongside the tracks and bumped its way toward us. The staffer returned to the front of the train after instructing us to stay put. He told us it would be awhile. The firefighters boarded the train and went compartment to compartment, doublechecking to make sure everyone was okay. As far as I could tell, most everyone had been asleep and hadn’t even felt the accident, except for the engineers, I’m sure.

We sat there about three hours, in the middle of the night, as the crew was offloaded, the train was thoroughly checked out, and a new crew was brought on. Finally, shortly before 5, we began to move again.

We were obviously late getting into Pittsburgh, but I had called and forewarned my daughter so she didn’t have to wait. The funny thing was at all the rest of the stops, when new passengers were boarding, they all were very angry at having to wait through the several hour delay. One large woman plopped down next to me and gave me a very dirty look, and started muttering about how inconvenienced she had been.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized to her. “But I think we had a good excuse!”

So — the next time you’re having a bad day due to transportation delays, and tempted to lash out, think about all the ways it could be worse!

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