In the late afternoon of September 12, 2008, Robert M. Sanchez, a twelve-year veteran train engineer, drove Metrolink commuter train 111 through the suburban landscape of the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles. Sanchez stopped the train in Chatsworth, then pulled out of the train station with 222 passengers aboard. He had been texting a friend all afternoon, flouting company policy against train crew members having their cell phones with them while on duty. Just minutes after leaving Chatsworth station, the train approached a stop light. Sanchez, absorbed in his phone, failed to see the light and pull the brakes. With Sanchez distracted, the 250,000 pound locomotive pulling three Bomobadier doubledecker cars sped through the light and straight toward an oncoming freight train. The freight train engineer pulled the brakes but it was too late. A booming crash rang throughout Chatsworth, followed by the terrified screams of passengers. By the time rescue teams arrived, hundreds of people were injured. Sanchez and twenty-four others were dead.
It’s important to notice is that this tragedy, embedded in our memory as the Chatsworth train collision, is not the story of a terrorist intent on mass murder, or a mentally ill recluse intent on suicide. It’s the story of a man as well-intentioned as any other, simply caught in a moment of fatal distraction. Of course, most of us would be horrified to learn that our train engineer was on his phone while driving the train. But whatever our moral judgement of this man, we have to admit that the difference between a normal day on the job and tragic disaster was a single moment in which Sanchez failed to pay attention to the present task at hand.
Just about everyone, no matter how responsible, will admit to having looked down to check their phone while driving from time to time, and still others must admit that they make this fatal glance constantly. But if you wrench your eyes from the phone just in time to hit the brakes, you let yourself off the hook for this moral infraction. No one got hurt, so it’s okay. Like the driver who occasionally skirts through the first second of a red light, you have, by shear luck, gotten away with almost-murder. Somehow, few of us realize how terrifyingly close such a choice is to the ill-fated Robert Sanchez and the passengers of Metrolink commuter train 111. If Sanchez had happened to glance up just a few seconds earlier he might have stopped the the train in time, then continued on with his workday, failing to appreciate the life-saving grace of that single brake pull.
In fact, most of us live our lives unaware of the deep effects of the way we use our attention. The unsung heroes of civilization are all of us—for the careful attention we pay in order to run things safely and smoothly. The struggle for survival is collective and final: that brake you pull could be the one that saves a life.