Be careful, pray - and travel on
Afraid of flying? Who wouldn't be after the seemingly endless succession of terrible airline disasters over the past month?
But you can choose to stay home and never venture past your front door, or you can resolve to actually live in the world and get as much as you can out of that privilege while you're here.
Consider that there are tens of thousands of commercial flights per day and, amazingly, very few mishaps occur. Months often go by without hearing reports of an accident involving a commercial airliner. When we board an aircraft, the odds overwhelmingly favor our safe arrival, but it certainly doesn't help to offer a heartfelt prayer when the plane is taking off and then again when it is landing.
The video footage on TV this week that showed two women on an 80-foot-high bridge in Indiana frantically running away from an approaching train is enough to put the fear of God into anyone. Fortunately, they had the presence of mind to lie flat on the tracks, just in the nick of time, and managed to escape injury. The word "miracle" is thrown around a lot nowadays, but in this case, it can be the only possible explanation for their survival.
Everybody waxes nostalgically about trains nowadays, probably because so many of us don't see them all that often. Our infatuation with the internal combustion engine and the compelling temptation of car ownership put us in a catatonic trance while the nation's rail system unfortunately suffered irreparable disuse and decline. Much as we romanticize about them now, trains played the predominant role in the transportation disasters of past eras that horrified past generations. Train tragedies were all too common, and they were grimly reported in the daily newspapers because, sadly, many of these disasters happened close to home.
For example, on March 4, 1889, the Mount Carmel Item reported the tragic death of Manassas McGee, of Mount Carmel. He was walking along the railroad tracks a half-mile from the station, when he was struck and killed by a passenger train on the Pennsylvania Railroad near the Reliance dirt bank.
That tragedy was less than a year removed from the Locust Gap disaster of May 5, 1888, in which seven people, including six children, died when a railroad freight car full of dynamite exploded and destroyed many homes in the Gap's "downtown" areas.
On May 10, 1890, Willie Horn, 13, of the now defunct Mount Carmel Township village of Bell's Tunnel, was riding on a railroad car when he fell under its wheels and, shortly thereafter, died from his injuries.
Four months later - again in Locust Gap - 19-year-old Elizabeth Hulihan, in the company of two young friends - was hit and killed by passenger train while they were out for what they thought would be a pleasant evening jaunt near the tracks.
There were eight fatalities in a train wreck on the Pennsylvania Railroad at Quakake Junction in October 1888. On Jan. 9, 1889, 17 people died and 34 were injured (reportedly, some Mount Carmel and Shamokin residents were among the victims) in the wreck of an excursion train on the Lehigh Valley Railroad in Ambrose, N.J.
Not that far away from here - in Shoemakersville (near Hamburg), 24 people died Sept. 19, 1890, when an express train plunged 25 feet into the Schuylkill River.
In some of these tragedies, the guys at the controls were obviously at fault; in other cases, the catastrophes were the result of careless decisions made by the victims themselves.
Our amazing transportation machines, no matter how technologically advanced, are designed by, built by, maintained by, operated by and used by human beings who are far from infallible. We all have a responsibility to ourselves and those around us to help make our flight, voyage or land travel as safe as possible.
In the final analysis, we are always at some risk. Boats sink, cars crash, trains wind up on the wrong tracks with catastropic effects and disaster can even befall you while you're taking your morning walk or even when you're descending your cellar stairs. But if the choice is between booking a flight or taking my chances driving a day or two on interstate highways, I'll happily take my chances flying, thank you very much.
(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)