I was on the train that struck and killed somebody under a bridge in Gaithersburg on Friday. Not more than a minute before we stopped, the conductor was laughing and cracking jokes, but once the tragic information came in, his expression went very serious.
While the rest of us remained on the train -- some complaining good-naturedly about the seeming regularity of delays, not having heard the news; others griping loudly and most, just sitting quietly -- the conductor exited the train to make the required check.
A few of us hoped that it was just a mistake or that perhaps the person was just grazed and not seriously injured. Some engaged in gallows humor to stave off the horror of the idea.
When the conductor returned, everyone hushed and one of the regulars - a long-time commuter - asked him a question, which sounded like, "How bad?".
His only reply: "It's not good." But his face told more of the story than any of us really wanted to know.
After he exited the train again, we watched emergency personnel show up and began their investigation. One of the other conductors came through our car to give us updates: The Maryland Transit Administration, which runs the MARC service, was working on setting up alternate transportation for the train riders; those who could arrange rides, the police finally would let off the train, but only through one of the front cars.
When our conductor came back through for a moment, I touched his arm and quietly asked if he was okay. He looked at me a moment, his eyes extra blue against the paleness that defeated his tan, then just nodded and moved on, his demeanor so unlike himself (or the himself I had gotten to know), that my eyes stung with the tears he certainly wasn't going to shed in public.
Bag-laden and luggage-toting people began flowing into the front cars from one of the cars behind us. We shortly discovered the reason, and to put it carefully: the police were making a retrieval.
Afterwards, the passengers were allowed back into their car, blessedly untraumatized by what they might have seen had they stayed. And shortly after that, the authorities released the train to continue its journey
When I got off the train at my stop, instead of hurrying for the shuttle, I went to the conductor and gave him a hug. He smiled a little.
Think about it; most of the conductors and engineers have been working for the railroads a long time and far too many have seen their share of horrific tragedy first-hand. Even the most grizzled of them could probably use a hug or handshake now and again.
Related story: Individual struck by MARC train in Gaithersburg; service delayed