Saturday, 4 June 2016

4 June - a date remembered for...?

I woke up this morning, aware that it was 4 June, the anniversary of Poland's first (semi) free elections in 1989 that would result in the fall of communism. Momentous as that event was, it did not make the top news story in the BBC that day 27 years ago. The top news story was the massacre by the Chinese communist authorities of the protesters at Tiananmen Square, in which several hundred people died. The second story that day covered the Ufa rail disaster in Russia, in which at least 575 people - many of them children - died.

The Ufa disaster was chilling because of the huge number of fatalities, children travelling to or from holidays on the Black Sea, and the crass negligence that caused it. A pipeline carrying gas from Siberia, running close to the railway line, split open earlier the previous day (poor welding? rust). The split was 1.7m long. The pipeline operators, seeing a significant drop in pressure, rather than stopping the gas and investigating the cause, merely increased the flow. More and more gas poured out, which made its way into the cutting through which the Trans-Siberian railway ran. It formed a huge invisible lake into which plunged two passing trains at 01:15am on 4 June. As the trains approached one another on opposite tracks, both drivers applied the brakes; sparks from the brake blocks ignited the gas causing an explosion that had the force of several hundred tonnes of TNT. The flames were visible from 100km away, windows were blown out of houses in a 10km radius. All because of a lack of proper procedures and risk management.

So - rightly - the Tiananmen Square massacre and Ufa rail disaster took precedence over the historic Polish election.

Now, reading this morning about the Ufa disaster, I noticed that another massive rail disaster* took place in Russia exactly a year earlier, on 4 June 1988, at Arzamas. A train carrying 108 tonnes of hexogene, a military explosive more powerful than TNT, exploded near Arzamas-1 station, killing 91 people and destroying 150 buildings. The resultant crater was reportedly 26 metres deep. Given the secret military nature of the industry in the town, Soviet authorities initially suspected sabotage by foreign secret agents. [*The Russian Wikipedia page is so much more informative than the English one. So let your browser translate it for you.]

Today I went for a ride out to Augustówka and Pilawa. On my way back, just before Osieck, I noticed this monument to one of Poland's worst post-war rail accidents. A passenger train ran headlong into a freight train on this stretch of the Skierniewice to Łukow line. With one track closed for repair, and both trains found themselves on the same track. The driver of the passenger train, heading for Łuków, left Osieck station without the necessary authority. Twenty five people - including the driver - died as a result.

I looked at the date - and froze. It was also 4 June. The year - 1981. So exactly 35 years ago today. Looking at the names and ages of the dead - aged between 16 and 77, including a mother and daughter, two twin brothers, both 17, and the intriguingly named Narcyz Kieliszek - I ponder on the fact that all could have lived normal lives had one man not made one careless mistake.

Out on the quiet DW 805, the cross stands to the left of the road on the way from Osieck pod Grabinką and Osieck itself. Just behind the memorial is the railway line where the accident took place. You can make out the line in the photo (above) through the trees to the right of the plaque.

Time to reflect about coincidence and complacency, being at the wrong place at the wrong time - that we are always teetering on the edge of chaos. Contemplating that fact helps.

This time last year:
Corpus Christi, rural Mazovia

This time two years ago:
25th anniversary of Poland's transition

This time three years ago:
Poland's infrastructure progress

This time five years ago:
Wetlands in late-spring

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki's flood of floods: Puławska and Pozytywki

Jeziorki's flood of floods: Sarabandy and Karczunkowska

Jeziorki's flood of floods: Trombity and Kórnicka

This time seven years ago:
Another time, another place

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