Life after the Amtrak disaster

Brian Kieser of Philadelphia rides the Amtrak train out of 30th St. Station regularly for his finance job in NYC. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)

IT'S EARLY Monday morning, and I'm at 30th Street Station. It has been six days since the deadly crash of Amtrak's Train 188 in Frankford shut down rail service between Philly and New York.

Northbound Amtrak service resumes at 5:53 a.m., and city officials, railroad administrators and reporters galore are at the station.

I'm not really here for the hoopla. I'd planned only to ride the train for a passenger's-eye view of the disaster site. Still, I say hello to the mayor, scribble quotes from Amtrak bigwigs and ask a few commuters how it feels to board the first northbound Amtrak train after the disaster.

"I'm nervous, of course, but not nervous enough to not ride the train," says Brian Kieser, a Philadelphian en route to his finance job in New York.

He nods toward the heavy police presence at the station - Amtrak officers, bomb-sniffing dogs, the mayor's own security detail. "You've got to figure, this is the safest train you could be on."

Yes, I think, but only if we have managed to predict the precise dangers we hope to control. Instead, another unforeseen tragedy may show us - as we arise bloodied and stunned by the horror we didn't see coming - that we were whistling in the dark.

But what are we supposed to do - stop whistling? In the calm between unthinkable tragedies, hearts still beat, breakfast must be fixed for the kids, bills paid, milestone birthday celebrations planned and enjoyed.

Life goes on until, for some, it doesn't. All we can do is hope we will be spared, pray for the unlucky and comfort the grieving.

On board the train, I sip my coffee in the cafe car as we roll past the Philadelphia Zoo, cross the bridge over the Schuylkill, rumble by the sky-blue ironwork of the Market-Frankford El. The train slows noticeably as we approach the curve that engineer Brandon Bostian entered at a ferocious 106 mph last week, sending his train off the rails.

Some passengers sleep through the view. Others soberly take in the crash site at Frankford Junction. It actually looks tidy, as if a baseball team's maintenance crew had just groomed its dirt and gravel. If not for a few remaining service vehicles, we'd never know the horror that had unfolded there.

We do, however, know what followed it.

The outsized kindness of Frankford's rowhouse denizens, who opened their hearts and homes to victims, offering snacks, water, bandages, shoes.

The red-caped bravery of Philly's first responders, who swiftly brought order and clarity to a scene of chaos and bewilderment.

The brilliance of Philly's second responders - hospital workers who'd prepared so diligently for potential catastrophes that their training kicked in as muscle memory does, without thought.

The leadership from City Hall, where public servants moved heaven and earth to manage the crisis without crippling the city. And the Herculean efforts of Amtrak workers who worked around the clock to move the wreckage and restore lost service.

Philly shone that day as it has in the week since. Still, our response hasn't been much different from that of other communities in other times of calamity.

In her fine 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit describes how, in the wake of catastrophes, human beings usually respond by pulling together in ways we may not believe we're capable of doing when all is calm.

Afterward, she says, there's often a feeling of unity and happiness as we let go of the trivial concerns that consumed us before hell broke loose.

Disaster, she writes, can provide a remarkable reprieve from the day-to-day worry we indulge that we aren't enough and haven't enough. It gives us "another view into another world for our other selves.

"When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up - not all, but the great preponderance - to become their brothers' keepers," she writes. "And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amid death, chaos, fear and loss. Were we to [always] know and believe this, our sense of what is possible at any time might change."

Disasters don't just bring out the best in us; they also remind us what a privilege it is to experience life's mundane moments or petty obstacles. The next time I sigh that I can't afford to fix the roof or haven't time to help a friend move across the country, I will try to remind myself that Rachel Jacobs would have given anything to still be here to indulge such petty worries.

Jacobs, a young New York mom and CEO, was killed in the crash, leaving behind a husband and toddler who are reeling. So are the families of Derrick Griffith, Giuseppe Piras, Laura Finamore, Bob Gildersleeve, Justin Zemser, Jim Gaines and Abid Gilani.

Their deaths remind us that we are still here, alive and lucky. That we have a choice about how we will spend our days, how we will treat others, what we will fret over and what we will jettison, that life is too short to waste on things that don't matter.

"It's good to be back," Amtrak assistant conductor Kellie Stiggers told me yesterday, as our train rumbled toward the Big Apple. The 5:53 is her regular train, and she knows her passengers names, faces and stories by heart.

"I missed everyone. We're our own community. It's so good to see everyone again."

Life goes on. We are here. Still.




Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly