There are two main schools of thought on what may have caused Bostian to lose his bearings. The first takes into account the rockings in the vicinity and Bostian’s own reported account of his train being struck by a large object, his forehead wounds and a small pocked dent on the left side of the windshield — a dent of the kind typically produced by a rock. “To me, it’s pretty clear what happened,” Richard Beall, the longtime accident investigator, told me. “Bostian’s got the throttle open to get the train up to speed. A projectile hits the windshield. Now the windshields on these locomotives are thick, but that impact is going to be out of nowhere and scary. As a human, you’ve got a tendency to duck. But he ducks into the dashboard and smacks his head, knocks himself out. And by the time he’s back up, and he’s reoriented himself, it’s: ‘Oh, crap.’ ”
Of course, other engineers, struck by projectiles in exactly the same place on the Northeast Corridor, managed to keep their trains from overturning — a point that Beall willingly concedes. “It happens, it’s violent and terrifying, but you move on,” he told me. Which brings up the second, and not mutually exclusive, possibility. This situation takes place in the same time frame but has Bostian lost, confusing Frankford Junction with the curve before it and realizing his mistake only at the last moment. Several people involved in the investigation offered the analogy of a driver on a long and darkened freeway, mesmerized by the unending roll of asphalt. A kind of hypnosis takes over. The driver, fatigued, looks up to see his exit, but it’s already starting to pass, and the car swerves off the road at a dangerous speed. If Bostian had been rocked earlier in the trip, they said, this might have only added to his confusion, putting him on edge.
This is just a small part, which considers the possibility that the train was hit with debris shortly before it derailed and takes into account the fact that the engineer was exhausted after a difficult first leg of his roundtrip from New York to Washington. It’s long, but well worth a lunchtime read.
Photo: NY Times Magazine