Robert Sanchez operated Metrolink trains in the Los Angeles area. By all accounts, he was a personable fellow. You might say, nice to a fault. He occasionally invited young passengers to take control of the train. He stayed in touch with train enthusiasts and friends via texting. Cool!
On September 12, 2008, he was operating a train near the end of an 11 hour shift. He was also sending and receiving text messages - 57 in all while on duty that day. Sanchez missed a red light signal and plowed without braking into a freight train heading in the opposite direction on the same track. Twenty five people died (Sanchez included); 135 were injured, many critically. For dozens of the survivors, life will never be the same. (You can attach faces to the numbers here.)
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued its final report. While criticizing the long shifts and the lack of automatic crash controls, the board has placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the late Mr. Sanchez. Distracted by his texting activity, he failed to notice yellow and red signals, which should have alerted him to trouble ahead. As one board member put it, "his head was not in the game." That's an odd but apt metaphor for a tragedy on this scale, with losses totalling about $12 million, not to mention the random destruction of human life.
We live in a world where distraction is deeply embedded in our way of life. As the poet T.S. Eliot put it in his poem "Burnt Norton," we are "distracted from distraction by distraction." From moment to moment, one thing or another tempts us. Don't like the music? Change the station. Wondering what a friend is up to? Fire off a text. No need to be bored when there are so many ways to engage our flighty minds. It's deceptively easy to multi-task your way out of the doldrums. It worked for Sanchez - up to a very specific point in time.
Eliot's poem ends with what might be an epitaph for the victims of this terrible incident, Sanchez included, who surely never intended any harm:
Ridiculous the sad waste time
stretching before and after.
Ridiculous and sad, indeed.