Thursday, January 27, 2005

How Not to Commit Suicide

The Darwin Awards have become the recognized standard of idiocy in contemporary society, or at least for many who populate internet message boards. From their website:

The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally kill themselves in really stupid ways.

This concept was misapplied yesterday by a Los Angeles area commuter commenting on a tragedy that befell a passenger train during the morning ride to work:

Pam Willars of Newhall, who rode a Metrolink train into town at about 6:45 p.m. said it was not the train’s fault. “It’s some idiot who should be given the Darwin award — it’s his fault,” Willars said.

Juan Manuel Alvarez, an emotionally disturbed man, attempted to commit suicide by parking his SUV across the tracks used by a morning commuter train. Had he succeeded, he would have been an easy Darwin Award winner. At the last minute, he decided not to kill himself. Instead, at least ten passengers on the train were killed and around 200 wounded.

Mr. Alvarez watched the fiery impact and was later found wandering amid the mangled railcars, muttering: "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

I'm sorry, too, Mr. Alvarez, but it is too late for remorse.

The tragedy could have been lessened if Juan Alvarez had parked in the path of a freight train. A family acquaintance who became an engineer many years ago was told that he would probably hit and kill someone on the tracks during his first year. This is a much more common occurrence than most people realize. When he did eventually spot someone on the tracks waiting to get hit, his first instinct was to try and stop the train. No, his veteran conductor told him, you are pulling heavy freight cars, including toxic chemicals, that will be dumped all over a populated area if you try to stop on a dime. Just hit the man on the tracks; there's nothing you can do about him now anyway. Then come to a normal slow stop and cooperate with the investigation when the authorities arrive. The engineer, a devout Christian,
was forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. It was an unenviable choice: Death or death. It bothered him for a long time afterwards.

Passenger trains are different. Whereas freight trains are long, heavy pulled by locomotives that are built for power, a passenger locomotive is built for speed and pulls much lighter cars that are designed for comfort. A freight train would have demolished his car with less risk of upsetting anything that the train was pulling. Blocking a passenger train is a good way to commit murder. Unfortunately, Mr. Alvarez was too selfish to consider this during his self-imposed brush with death.

Instead of a Darwin Award, Juan Manuel Alvarez is looking at a jury award. His mental condition might well the only thing standing between a life in prison and capital punishment.

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