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Thu April 7, 2005
The Wreck of the Twilight Limited
A fictionalized account of the worst accident in Amtrak history that happened in Mobile, Alabama.
By Don Noble
In real life, here?s what happened.
On September 22, 1993, in the early morning hours, at 2:35 a.m. to be exact, an Amtrak passenger train headed north out of Mobile derailed on a bridge over Bayou Canot. In dense, impenetrable fog, the bridge had been bumped by one of the barges pushed by a tug boat. The bump put the rails out of line and the train, locomotive first, sailed off the bridge and fell 75 feet. The lead locomotive embedded itself in the bank, some cars went underwater, some dangled in midair, some stayed on the bridge, and some burst into flames.
It was the worst accident in Amtrak history, and 47 people died; 254 people survived. It could have been much worse.
Joe Formichella, a writer in Fairhope, Alabama, decided to write about this wreck, but not until almost 10 years had passed. His first impulse was to write a book like The Perfect Storm, nonfiction, about exactly what happened, what intricate confluence of events, almost like chaos theory (a butterfly?s wing beating in the Yucatan causes a typhoon in Bangladesh), had to happen, in just the correct order, the train, the bridge, the fog, the exact amount of barge bump, in order for events to occur in just this way.
In the course of things, Formichella decided to rework the material in the form of a novel. This decision gave him some freedom, I think, but deprived his book of some of its power.
Instead of The Perfect Storm, we have something like Thornton Wilder?s novel The Bridge at San Luis Rey. Formichella creates a cast of characters who board the train at different places, from L.A. to New Orleans.
He also fictionalizes the rescue workers and the crew of the tugboat Pineda and follows all these different characters as they move, inexorably, towards the moment.
The characters include a freshly minted MD who turns out to be a hero, a young woman who has her first lesbian experience on the train, a couple of families with small children?the regular ship of fools. In Mobile, and I think much more closely modeled on the real-life people, are the black man who is at the wheel of the tug in the fog and the fireman rescue-worker diver who goes into the wreck on a search-and-recovery mission. These two men are the most fully realized characters, and, sadly, they are both emotionally ruined by their experiences.
Most of the characters on the train, the completely invented ones, are not developed enough. It is as if Formichella lacked confidence in his powers of characterization and feared boring the reader. This is one of the few novels I have read recently which I think might have been better, longer. We need more biography, more background, more psychology, so to speak, so that these men and women move from two dimensions to three. We need to know them better.
And, likewise, we need more in terms of the physics and technology of the matter. Sebastian Yunger does not hesitate to stop his narrative in The Perfect Storm to give us an essay on codfish or the physiology of drowning. Formichella could have given me much more about the towboat and barge industry, the vulnerabilities of railway bridges, the minutiae of railroad safety mechanisms.
This is not a philosophical novel, but it does raise a few provocative issues. In the immediate aftermath, the tug crew were heroes, rescuing victims from the water. 24 hours later, they were labeled ?killers? by the press, held responsible for the damaged bridge, which they could not possibly have seen in the fog. Is there not such a thing as an ?accident?? I think there is.
This is a respectable first novel, but I think that Joe Formichella?s best book is yet to come.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.