I’ve now had a couple of weeks to absorb the meaning (or, more likely, the meanings) of the recent high speed adventure aboard a train bound from Amsterdam to Paris via Belgium. Just when I think I understand this truly strange happening, another fact pops up, and I have to back off and redefine everything. No. It’s not tragedy, not even melodrama. It’s comedy. Three young Americans and a sixtyish Brit are awarded the Legion of Honor for saving the lives of scores of passengers, and critics point out, their lips curling, that the young men didn’t wear suits to the award ceremony.
Since I write mysteries, I tend to view news stories as plot sources, and this one seems made to be dramatized. Consider the cast. Think of The Bridge of San Luis Rey or Murder on the Orient Express. Here we have twenty or so people thrown together at random, some boarding in Amsterdam, others in Belgium. Six of them (counting the gunman) have names and faces in the press version of their story, but a good fiction writer would develop others. The wife of the man who was the first to be injured, for instance. He tried to protect her and their children, almost at the cost of his life. What was she doing? Were the children screaming? How many children were there? Were there others in the carriage? What about other people aboard? Early versions of the story reported negative comments about train personnel doing nothing, indeed leaving the scene. Was that really so, or were they going for help? The train was rerouted very quickly.
But even without expanding the dramatis personae, a writer would have rich material for characterization. Chris Norman, the Englishman who helped overpower the gunman, is quoted as saying that he thought he was probably going to die anyway, so he might as well try to do something useful. That struck me as excellent psychology and may well have expressed what the three American kids felt too, though they were also observing the man with the AK47 intently, and they pounced on him as soon as his rifle jammed.
The three young men (I keep wanting to say boys, but men is the right word) are a wonderful variety of American personalities and they worked brilliantly as a team. Stone took on the terrorist directly and suffered the consequences. His thumb was almost severed, but he kept on coming, and Skarlatos grabbed the rifle, using it to whop the terrorist repeatedly on the head. Sadler, when the prisoner was secured, went to the next carriage to reassure the passengers that the situation was under control–and to find a first aid kit and blankets for the man who was injured trying to protect his family.
Stone, meanwhile, despite his own serious injury, stuck his hand in the wounded man’s throat and closed the left carotid artery. He held the wound shut for what must have been twenty interminable minutes, until the train pulled into Arras and medics came to relieve him. It does not at all diminish his heroism to know that his job in the Air Force is as an ambulance services technician. It’s one thing to know what to do and quite another to do it.
Well, that’s it, that’s the story. Right? Actually, that story will go right on happening in the minds (and nightmares) of the people in the train carriage. And there is no way that a writer of fiction such as myself can use it. Why? Because nobody would believe it.