SANTIAGO de COMPOSTELA, Spain — They’re dead along the tracks and inside the wagons, middle-class bodies in shorts and T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. Easy clothes, the same things I wear when I take that train to Santiago de Compostela, down the same tracks that pass through my town. That was my train that crashed.
And in some ways, those are my people, dozens of them, sprawled on the tracks in the photo on the front pages of every newspaper.
I’ve lived in Spain for seven years, in a village along the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela. I am active in the massive volunteer corps that helps move thousands of hikers, tourists, and pilgrims east to west to the shrine city. The train that derailed two days ago is the same train I take when I travel west at least six or seven times each year to meet with colleagues in the Archconfraternity of St. James. It’s the train I take homeward when I finish one of my own pilgrimages.
It's “the pilgrim train” that runs between Madrid and Santiago, its luggage racks loaded with backpacks and walking sticks.
The city of Santiago de Compostela was all set for its annual party. July 25 is the feast day of Santiago, the patron saint of Spain.
The body of Santiago, the apostle James, is supposedly buried at the heart of the fabulous cathedral there, and more than 100,000 pilgrims walk the 1,000-year-old pilgrim trail each year to pay their respects.
The big feast day draws kings and prime ministers, archbishops, and throngs of faithful.
And the eve of the big party, right outside town, a train loaded with festival-goers jumps the tracks. Scores are dead, dozens are hurt.
Disasters happen everywhere. Disasters happen in Spain, and most Spaniards take disasters and horrors almost in their stride. Perhaps it harks back to the “inshallah” of their distant Islamic past, or centuries of rule by cruel landlords, or the lost decades of the Franco regime. Spaniards are experts at resigning themselves to God’s will.
It keeps them strong these days, when almost half the country’s youths are out of work, the national debt is beyond imagination, and pensions, health care, and unemployment benefits all teeter on the brink of insolvency.
Politicians, judges, and even the king himself are spattered with scandal and corruption charges.
Still, the center holds. The big Mass at Santiago packs them in every July 25. The saint continues interceding with the Almighty for the country he loves best. The fireworks are spectacular, the kids have a great street party, the trains run on time.
The timing of this accident, the location, and scale of destruction — it’s no wonder Spaniards are taking this so personally. Spain is not a large country, and more than 90 percent still identify themselves as Roman Catholic.
Soon after the news broke, ugly rumors flew of “religious terrorism,” another attack on Christian Spain by radical Muslims.
The images of folded train cars and lifeless bodies flashed back to “M-11,” the al-Qaeda bomb attacks on Madrid's commuter train system in March, 2004.
Spain, already on its knees, covers itself in mourning. Thousands of former pilgrims around the world are watching this bit of foreign correspondence with special keenness. Santiago is their city too. There had to be pilgrims on that train.
I take this personally. I scan the gruesome news photographs very carefully, because I almost know the guy who runs the cafeteria car on that train. He is short and white-haired. He knows which sandwich I like best, and he knows I get on and get off the train at Sahagun — because according to him, I am the only passenger he's ever seen “leaving a perfectly good train to go out there into the middle of nothing.”
His name is Eduardo, or maybe Enrique. I look at the photos, hoping I do not see the black apron or the shock of white hair. I hope to God he is alive.
Rebekah Scott is a former reporter for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She now lives in Spain and is the author of The Moorish Whore.