By Max Brower
August 4th, 1978
The phone was ringing. Mike Downing slapped at it and knocked the alarm clock off the nightstand instead. It hit the floor with an angry “clang,” and disappeared under the bed. He got the phone on the second try and held it to his ear.
Next to him, Darena stirred. “Mike, who the hell is calling this late?”
“What are you talking about?” Mike asked, ignoring her. “They just left it there? Jesus Christ…okay, okay. Where? Hold on...” He turned on the bedside lamp, opened the nightstand, and fumbled for the pad and pencil. “Okay, go on.” He wrote down the location. “I got it. Find two guys and have them meet me at the yard. I don’t care who…just as long as they know how to operate the damn thing. Pay them double if you have to. No…I’ll take them myself.”
Mike stood up and stretched, his back popping audibly in the small bedroom.
“Who was that?”
“It was John Davis. I have to go to Durham.”
“Why? What time is it?”
Mike fished under the bed and found the alarm clock. It was 12:55 AM.
It was five in the morning, and the sun was still an hour and a half on the other side of the horizon when Mike’s Oldsmobile pulled onto the dusty shoulder of highway 501, just outside of Durham. Keenon Hampton, McKee Railroad’s regional manager, along with two Durham police officers, waited for him.
“Wake up,” Mike said.
Behind him, Keith Franks and Harold Garvin stirred awake.
“Are we there, yet?” Keith asked.
“This isn’t worth double,” Harold grumbled.
Mike got out, stamped on his cigarette, and fell in alongside Keenon, who was walking towards the railroad crossing. “Where is it?”
“About a hundred yards up the track. Those two assholes just stopped and called me collect from a pay phone up the road. No explanation. They just quit.”
“Well, they’re fired, anyway,” Mike said in disgust.
“They better be.”
The patrol car’s window rolled down, and a sleepy-eyed officer poked his head out. “Do you guys got this? We’ve got better things to do than babysit your train all night.”
Keith waved an arm at him. “We appreciate the help, officers. We’ll take it from here.”
The cruiser’s engine came to life, and a moment later it was rolling up highway 501, a small dust cloud in its wake.
Mike turned back to the car. “Grab your shit. We got to go.”
The four men walked up the shoulder of highway 501 then turned right onto the small path that ran beside the tracks—to where Power 917 waited.
Keith and Harold went through the startup checklist, and a moment later, Power 917’s brand new Electro-Motive diesel engine roared to life. The engine needed to be at full operational temperature before the 917 could continue pulling the half-mile of coal cars behind her. At least Tom and Jake had stopped the train outside of Durham, and no other crossings were blocked. That saved McKee a significant fine, although they were still being charged double time for the extra hours hogging up the line. They needed to get moving.
Mike and Keenon walked the train, shining bright flashlights over each wheel, looking for defects or any other reason Tom Lovett and Jake Christopher had suddenly stopped and walked away.
“Are you sure there was nothing wrong with those guys?” Keenon asked.
Mike didn’t envy Keenon’s position right now. “Nothing. They got along fine. Good guys. Punctual. They’ve done this run a hundred times. I don’t think Tom has even missed a day of work since I got here. I have no idea why they did it.”
They reached the last car and circled around to the other side of the tracks. Twenty minutes later, they climbed back into the control cabin of Power 917.
“Did you guys find anything wrong up here?” Mike asked.
Harold shook his head. “Everything checks out fine, boss. Are you seriously telling me that Tom and Jake just up and quit? Just like that?”
Mike looked around Power 917’s immaculately clean cabin. The controls still had their virgin shine, and the entire place smelled like a new car. There wasn’t even the typical film of dust that the cleaners were continually fighting to keep off the controls in the other power units.
“That’s apparently what happened,” Keenon growled. “Are you sure there wasn’t anything going on with those two? They weren’t queers or anything? Maybe got into a lovers’ spat?”
Keith and Harold exchanged another glance. “Tom’s been fighting with his wife,” Keith said, “but I didn’t think it was that bad.” He motioned around. “Maybe the place was just too clean for them.”
“How much longer?” Mike asked, lighting another cigarette. “We need to clear the area.”
“We’re almost ready,” Harold said, spinning his chair around to the control board.
Twenty minutes later, Mike and Keenon watched as McKee Railroad’s brand-new Power engine 917 continued south towards Charlotte, still on its maiden run.
Alan Barfield and Elroy Hefter and were waiting outside of Mike’s office when he got back to the McKee rail yards. It was just after noon.
“Mike,” Alan said, anxiously. “Keenon called from Warrenton. He’s freaking the hell out. Something else happened to the 917. It’s stopped in Greensboro.”
Greensboro was only sixty-five miles south of Durham.
“Keith and Harold are in the hospital. You got to take Elroy and me out there right now.”
“Jesus Christ,” Mike said. “What the hell is it now? Come on, let’s go.”
Two weeks later, Mike knocked on Tom Lovett’s door. He looked around the small front yard of the trailer home, noting the overturned barbeque grill and a child’s baseball glove buried in the grass.
Tom opened the door. His eyes were bloodshot.
“Can I come in, Tom?”
“Yea, sure.” Tom led him through the trailer’s small living room and into the kitchen. The sink was overflowing with dishes. Mike could smell rotting food and garbage.
Tom tensed up and then looked around. “She’s with her mother. It’s been a bad couple of weeks.” He held up his hands in defense. “But it’s not like that, Mike. It’s only for a little bit…until I can get my shit together.”
“Tom, I want to offer you your job back.”
Tom looked at him confused. “Why would you do that?”
“But there’s a condition. We want you to you undergo a full physical examination. We’re offering the same to Jake Christopher and the others.” Mike pulled out a chair. “Have a seat, Tom.”
“In case you missed it, we’ve had some issues with Power 917.” He saw Tom cringe at the mentioned of the unit number. “Are you okay?”
Tom shook his head. “Mike, I’d rather work in the mines for the rest of my life than ever drive that engine again. I can’t do it. I’ll work double shifts or do whatever else you want, but I can’t pilot the 917 again.” He looked around the kitchen and then back at Mike. “I don’t think Jake will either.”
Mike observed Tom, looking for bullshit. He didn’t see any.
“After you and Jake left the 917 in Durham, I drove Keith Franks and Harold Garvin out to take over. They both ended up in Greensboro Memorial Hospital…for food poisoning. Harold thinks their wives both bought the same bad cold-cuts from Dellas Market. That’s interesting considering that neither of them had lunch pails with them when I dropped them off in Durham.”
Tom looked up. His lower lip was quivering.
“After that, I drove Hefter and Barfield out to cover them. Those two actually made it to Charlotte, but then they refused to bring the 917 back. They said that they would rather be fired; they’re on leave until we get to the bottom of this.”
Mike tried to look Tom in the eyes, but Tom averted his gaze again. He began fiddling with his hands.
“What happened, Tom? We had the 914 run down to Charlotte and pull the 917 back. No problems there. They’re doing a complete teardown, trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with it. The company thinks that if they can find some sort of defect, then we can sue for the fines we’ve received, lost profit, and not to mention, six of our engineers out of commission. Do you remember smelling anything? Maybe, methane from the coal beds?”
Tom realized what Mike was asking him and nodded. “I’ll say that if you want, Mike. But I worked the mines growing up. I know what methane smells like.”
“What about carbon monoxide, then? Did you smell exhaust?”
Tom continued to shake his head. “If you want, sure…but I didn’t smell that either. Besides, I was sitting next to the open window the whole time.”
“Well, that might be it, then—”
“No, Mike. The engine is to the rear of the cab. All that shit, methane from the coal too, would have been vented out behind us.”
“Then what the hell happened, Tom?”
Tom stopped fiddling with his hands and leveled his gaze on Mike. “We went crazy; that’s what happened. It was like being on the worst acid trip of my life, and one that wouldn’t stop. Do you know you know long it normally takes to get to Durham from Portsmouth?”
Mike thought about it. “It took me three and a half hours in my car. So, probably a little less than that, depending on the wait time to cross the James River.”
“It took us three days just to make it to Durham, Mike. Three fucking days. I’m telling you, I was looking at the clock the entire time. Three fucking days before I finally managed to pull my foot off the switch and stop the damn thing. I think if I hadn’t, I would still be driving it now. And Jake was giggling the whole time. He wouldn’t stop—for three days he just sat there giggling. And there was whispering…”
Tom murmured something.
“Those voices. I just wanted to rip my ears off to make them stop. They kept telling me to do horrible things—to Amy and Jason…to my mother and sisters. They told me that I had already done other horrible things, but it would be okay once they caught and gassed me.” Tom buried his face in his hands and began to weep. “It wouldn’t shut the fuck up. And the whole time Jake was just sitting there giggling. Then he got the hiccups…it lasted for twenty hours. Twenty fucking hours.” He looked up. “It told me that if I cut Jake’s throat, it would stop the giggling—and I almost did it. Jesus Christ, I almost did—with my pocketknife.”
Tom actually managed a smile. “But sure, I think it was the methane from the coal beds. There must have been a bad valve or vent or something. I can’t afford the rent on this place, and they’ve already turned the electric off. I can’t lose Amy and Jason.”
October 8th, 1978
Jack Swaney knocked on Mike Downing’s open office door. “You wanted to see me, boss?”
“Come in, Jack,” Mike said.
Jack stepped in but remained standing. He was a thirty-year veteran of McKee Railroad and had served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War Two, restoring rail lines in captured territory. This was back when most trains were still steam powered. Mike had handpicked him for this assignment.
“Are you ready to go?”
Power 917 was going back into service today, hauling general freight to Philadelphia. He wanted an experienced crew for this trip and had picked Jack and Carl Mellforth for the job.
“I’m ready,” Jack said and turned to leave.
Jack turned around and gave him a knowing look. “I’ll be fine, Mike. Everyone knows what happened with the 917, but it checked out fine. I’ve done my own inspection on it. There’s no problems—and there won’t be any. I’ll let you know how everything went after we get to Philly.” He turned to leave again.
“Jack, hold up …”
Mike walked Jack to Power 917, which was warming up and on track three.
Carl Mellforth called down from the cab. “Here to give us a proper send off, Mike?”
“He wants to make sure we don’t forget the train,” Jack said, turning to face Mike. He patted him on the shoulder. “Look. I know why you’re worried. But seriously; Everything’s in working order.”
Jack climbed in.
That’s the problem, Mike thought. Everything had been in working order. No defects, and now four of his employees were out of a job.
He went back to his office.
He got the call twenty-five minutes later.
Mike learned most of the details from the papers. By then, he was working for Norfolk Southern in Boston.
McKee Railroad Power Engine 917, hauling general freight between Portsmouth and Philadelphia, left the McKee rail yards at 2:08 PM. It was scheduled to change tracks and cross the James River at 3:15 PM, thirty miles away.
It arrived almost fifty minutes early.
The switching track was rated at 15 mph. Power 917 hit it at an estimated 145 MPH. The train derailed, continuing almost half a mile overland, and straight into the James River, pulling a quarter of its cars on top of it before sheer weight ground the rest to a halt. The pictures in the papers looked like a deformed bicycle chain. Power 917 was driven more than twenty feet below the riverbed from the sheer weight of the cars on top of it. It took a month to retrieve the power unit from the bottom of the river, along with the bodies of Jack Swaney and Carl Mellforth. The hulk was eventually sold for scrap.