Authors: Dan Simmons
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This book is dedicated to Wayne Simmons and Stephen King. For my brother Wayne, who is involved with accident investigation every day, admiration that your sense of humor has survived; for Steve, who felt the cutting edge of Darwin's blade via someone else's lethal stupidity, gratitude that you're still with us and willing to tell us more tales by the campfire.
Occam's Razor: All other things being equal, the simplest solution is usually the correct one.
âWilliam of Occam, fourteenth century
Darwin's Blade: All other things being equal, the simplest solution is usually stupidity.
âDarwin Minor, twenty-first century
he phone rang a few minutes after four in the morning. “You like accidents, Dar. You owe it to yourself to come see this one.”
“I don't like accidents,” said Dar. He did not ask who was calling. He recognized Paul Cameron's voice even though he and Cameron had not been in touch for over a year. Cameron was a CHP officer working out of Palm Springs.
“All right, then,” said Cameron, “you like
Dar swiveled to read his clock. “Not at four-oh-eight
,” he said.
“This one's worth it.” The connection sounded hollow, as if it were a radio patch or a cell phone.
“Montezuma Valley Road,” said Cameron. “Just a mile inside the canyon, where S22 comes out of the hills into the desert.”
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Dar. “You're talking Borrego Springs. It would take me more than ninety minutes to get there.”
“Not if you drive your black car,” said Cameron, his chuckle blending with the rasp and static of the poor connection.
“What kind of accident would bring me almost all the way to Borrego Springs before breakfast?” said Dar, sitting up now. “Multiple vehicle?”
“We don't know,” said Officer Cameron. His voice still sounded amused.
“What do you mean you don't know? Don't you have anyone at the scene yet?”
from the scene,” said Cameron through the static.
“And you can't tell how many vehicles were involved?” Dar found himself wishing that he had a cigarette in the drawer of his bedside table. He had given up smoking ten years earlier, just after the death of his wife, but he still got the craving at odd times.
“We can't even ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt what
of vehicle or vehicles was or were involved,” said Cameron, his voice taking on that official, strained-syntax, preliterate lilt that cops used when speaking in their official capacity.
“You mean what make?” said Dar. He rubbed his chin, heard the sandpaper scratch there, and shook his head. He had seen plenty of high-speed vehicular accidents where the make and model of the car were not immediately apparent. Especially at night.
“I mean we don't know if this is a car, more than one car, a plane, or a fucking UFO crash,” said Cameron. “If you don't see this one, Darwin, you'll regret it for the rest of your days.”
“What do youâ¦” Dar began, and stopped. Cameron had broken the connection. Dar swung his legs over the edge of the bed, looked out at the dark beyond the glass of his tall condo windows, muttered, “Shit,” and got up to take a fast shower.
It took him two minutes less than an hour to drive there from San Diego, pushing the Acura NSX hard through the canyon turns, slamming it into high gear on the long straights, and leaving the radar detector in the tiny glove compartment because he assumed that all of the highway patrol cars working S22 would be at the scene of the accident. It was paling toward sunrise as he began the long 6-percent grade, four-thousand-foot descent past Ranchita toward Borrego Springs and the Anza-Borrego Desert.
One of the problems with being an accident reconstruction specialist,
Dar was thinking as he shifted the NSX into third and took a decreasing-radius turn effortlessly, with only the throaty purr of the exhaust marking the deceleration and then the shift back up to speed,
is that almost every mile of every damned highway holds the memory of someone's fatal stupidity.
The NSX roared up a low rise in the predawn glow and then growled down the long, twisty descent into the canyon some miles below.
thought Dar, glancing quickly at an unremarkable stretch of old single-height guardrail set on wooden posts flashing past on the outside of a tight turn.
A little more than five years ago, Dar had arrived at that point only thirty-five minutes after a school bus had struck that stretch of old guardrail, scraped along it for more than sixty feet, and plunged over the embankment, rolled three times down the steep, boulder-strewn hillside, and had come to rest on its side, with its shattered roof in the narrow stream below. The bus had been owned by the Desert Springs School District and was returning from an “Eco-Week” overnight camping trip in the mountains, carrying forty-one sixth-grade students and two teachers. When Dar arrived, ambulances and Flight-For-Life helicopters were still carrying off seriously injured children, a mob of rescue workers was handing litters hand over hand up the rocky slope, and yellow plastic tarps covered at least three small bodies on the rocks below. When the final tally came in, six children and one teacher were dead, twenty-four students were seriously injuredâincluding one boy who would be a paraplegic for the rest of his lifeâand the bus driver received cuts, bruises, and a broken left arm.
Dar was working for the NTSB thenâit was the year before he quit the National Transportation Safety Board to go to work as an independent accident reconstruction specialist. That time the call came to his condo in Palm Springs.
For days after the accident, Dar watched the media coverage of the “terrible tragedy.” The L.A. television stations and newspapers had decided early on that the bus driver was a heroineâand their coverage reflected that stance. The driver's postcrash interview and other eyewitness testimony, including that of the teacher who had been sitting directly behind one of the children who had perished, certainly suggested as much. All agreed that the brakes had failed about one mile after the bus began its long, steep descent. The driver, a forty-one-year-old divorced mother of two, had shouted at everyone to hang on. What followed was a terrifying six-mile Mad Mouse ride with the driver doing her best to keep the careening bus on the road, the brakes smoking but obviously not slowing the vehicle enough, children flying out of their seats on the sharp turns, and then the final crash, grinding, and plummet over the embankment. All agreed that there was nothing the driver could have done, that once the brakes had failed it had been a miracle that she had kept the bus on the road as long as she had.
Dar read the editorials proclaiming that the driver was the kind of hero for whom no tribute could be too great. Two Los Angeles TV stations carried live coverage of the school board meeting during which parents of the surviving children gave testimonials to the driver's heroic attempts to save the bus under “impossible circumstances.” The
NBC Nightly News
did a four-minute special profile piece on this driver and other school bus drivers who had been injured or killed “in the line of duty.” Tom Brokaw called this driver and others like her “America's unsung heroes.”
Meanwhile, Dar gathered information.
The school bus was a 1989 model TC-2000 manufactured by the Blue Bird Body Company and purchased new by the Desert Springs School District. It had power steering, a diesel engine, and a model AT 545 four-speed automatic transmission from the Allison Transmission Division of General Motors. It was also equipped with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) 121-approved dual air-mechanical, cam-and-drum brake system that had front axle clamp type-20 brake chambers and rear axle clamp type-24/30 and emergency/parking brake chambers. All of the brakes had 5.5-inch manual slack adjusters.
The driver seat was lap-belt-equipped; the passenger seats were not. Dar knew that this was standard design for school buses. Parents who would never allow their children to ride unrestrained in their family vehicles happily waved goodbye to their children each morning in buses carrying fifty children and no passenger belts or harnesses. The estimated gross weight of this bus, the passengers, and their camping baggage was 22,848 pounds.
The driver hadâas the newspapers and TV reports had put itâ“a perfect safety record with the district.” Blood tests taken at the hospital immediately after the accident showed no evidence of drugs or alcohol. Dar interviewed her two days after the accident, and her account was almost word for word the same as the deposition she had given the CHP the evening of the crash. She reported that about one mile from their starting point, on a slight downhill grade, the bus brakes had “seemed weird and mushy.” She had pumped the brake pedal. A warning light had come on, indicating low brake pressure. At that point, the driver told him, the grade had changed from the downhill grade to a two-mile uphill climb and the bus began to slow. The automatic transmission had shifted to a lower gear and the brake warning light went off and then blinked a few times. The driver said that she assumed the problem had fixed itself at this point and that there was no reason not to continue.
Shortly thereafter, she reported, they entered the long downhill grade and the brakes “just failed completely.” The bus began picking up speed. The driver said that she could not slow it by using either the service or emergency brakes. Brake odor was strong. The rear wheels began smoking. She said that she had overridden the automatic transmission and shifted down to second gear, but that did not help. She said that she had then grabbed the radio to call her dispatcher, but had to drop the microphone in order to wrestle the wheel to keep the bus on the road. For six miles she succeeded, shouting at the students and teachers to “lean left!” and “lean right!” Finally the bus had contacted the outside guardrail, run along it, and gone over the embankment. “I don't know what else I could have done!” said the driver during the interview. She was weeping at that point. Her report agreed with the interview testimony Dar had taken from the surviving teacher and students.
The driverâoverweight, pasty-faced, and thin-lippedâseemed stupid and somewhat bovine to Dar, but he had to discount his own perceptions. The older he got and the longer he worked in accident investigation, the more stupid most people seemed to him. And more and more women tended to appear bovine in the years since the death of his wife.
His people checked the driver's record. The TV stations and papers had reported that she had “a perfect safety record with the district,” and this was true, but it was also true that she had only worked for the district for six months prior to the accident. According to DMV reports from Tennessee, where the driver had lived before moving to California, she'd been issued one DUI citation and two moving violations in five years. In California the bus driver held a school bus certificate (passenger transportation endorsement) issued two days before her employment by the district and had a valid California class B (commercial driver) license restricted to conventional buses with automatic transmissions only. The California DMV records also indicated that ten days before the accident, the driver had two violations: failure to provide financial responsibility and failure to properly display license plates. CHP records showed that because of these violations, her regular driver's license had been suspended. It had been reinstated the day before the accident after she had filed an SR-22 (proof of financial responsibility) with the DMV. She had no outstanding traffic warrants at the time of the accident. She had received 54 hours of instruction that included 21 hours of behind-the-wheel training in a bus similar to the crash vehicle, but the curriculum had no requirement for mountain-driving training.
Dar's report on the physical damage to the bus ran to four single-spaced pages. Essentially, the bus body had separated from the chassis, the roof had collapsed and crushed inward from just behind the driver's seat to the third row, the left side had crushed inboard, buckling and fracturing all of the window-frame supports and popping the glass out all along the left side, and the bumpers were missing. The fuel tank had been damaged in several places, one rubber fuel line had been cut, but the tank hadn't been breached and its guard remained securely fastened to the chassis.
Dar reviewed the inspection and repair orders for the bus and found that the brakes had been adjusted every 1,500 miles and that the vehicle was inspected on a monthly basis. Although the last inspection had been only two days before the accident and the mechanic had stated that he found the brakes slightly out of adjustment and had ordered them to be adjusted, there was no record of the mechanics' having adjusted the brakes. Safety Board tests of the accident vehicle's brakes showed that they had been out of adjustment on the day of the crash. Further investigation showed that the school district had only recently switched over from the CHP California Code of Regulations inspection form to a company-developed form (1040-008 Rev. 5/91), and the chief mechanic had checked both the “OK” box and the “Repair” boxes on the form, initialing the “Repair” boxes. But unlike the older inspection form on which the order for further service was written in a space under the “Repair” box, the chief mechanic's written work order had been scrawled on the back of the new form. The five mechanics working under himâthere was one mechanic for every eighteen buses, as per school district and industry guidelinesâhad missed the handwritten work order.
“Well, that's it, then,” said the superintendent of the Desert Springs School District.
“Not quite,” said Dar.
Three weeks after the accident, Dar staged a reenactment of the accident. An identical 1989 model TC-2000 school bus, loaded with 5,000 pounds of sandbags to simulate the weight of the students, teachers, and their luggage, was brought to the summit of Montezuma Valley Road at the national forest area where the classes had carried out their “Eco-Week” overnight camping trip. The brakes of this TC-2000 had been misadjusted to precisely the degree of error found on the accident vehicle. Dar designated himself as driver of the test vehicle and accepted one NTSB volunteer to ride along to videotape the reenactment. The California Highway Patrol closed the highway for the duration of the test. School Board members were present at the exercise. None volunteered to ride in the test bus.