Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding
More relatives visited that year than before. Choosing to ignore the reality and seriousness of her fate, his mom went about dinner like she did every year, smiling, laughing, and joking, with not a care in the world. The kids played with the other relatives while the adults visited. Everything was as it usually was. And what we thought was going to be a solemn Thanksgiving turned out to be one of the better ones. Because Mark and I had to work the following day, it was decided that Lexi would stay the night with his mom and his sister. So with a final round of hugs and kisses for all, Mark, the boys, and I headed for home. As we drove, I couldn’t help to think how devastated and depressed Mark was going to be without his mom and how learning to live without her was to be our greatest challenge yet….
Up early, I went through my usual morning routine to prepare for one last day of work before the holiday weekend. Mark’s shift, a half day substitute route, started later than mine which allowed him more time for shut eye. Ready to leave, I stopped to kiss him good-bye. Feigning sleep, he startled me when he grabbed my arms and pulled me towards him. Laughing, I pried myself from his arms and he reluctantly let me go. We quickly went over the plan for the children for the day. My daughter Lexi would remain with his sister and mom and I would pick her up on my way home from work. His oldest would be working until late, his youngest would be staying home alone, and my son Dale would go to work with him. I left with his promise to call me on his break.
Mark and Dale were about to leave the house when my sister Jenny, who lived on the opposite side of town from us, was suddenly awakened from a sound sleep.
* * * *
Like the vicious and loud beating of jungle drums, her heart pounded so intensely that it woke her from a sound sleep. Still caught up in the nightmare that she just couldn’t shake, she sat straight up in bed. Half awake, her mind tried desperately to make some sense of it. Shaking her to the core of her very soul, she had one consistent, loud, and overwhelming thought. She had to get her nephew Dale. Trembling, she fumbled in the darkness of her room for the phone and called her sister’s house.
* * * *
Mark and Dale were about to climb into the truck when they heard the phone ring. Mark hesitated, but decided that there was enough time and went to answer it. It was my sister Jenny. She was crying hysterically. She insisted that she be allowed to pick up Dale. She begged Mark to leave him at home and that she would explain it to me later. Confused by her irrational behavior, but without time to argue or to call me at work, he agreed to leave Dale at home. And without another word, before he could even say goodbye, he heard her hang up.
Forgetting to put on her coat, Jenny flew out the door in her pajamas, her heart still pounding a million miles per second. Like a wild woman, with makeup from the night before now smeared down her face from the tears she’d been crying and her hair a tangled mess, she jumped into her car and raced for my house. When she finally reached Dale, she grabbed him into her arms, hugged him tightly and cried harder than she ever cried before. Realizing that she confused and frightened him with her appearance and behavior, she could only explain that she had had a bad dream and just wanted him to visit her for the day.
At 10:00 a.m. I called home to assure that Mark had taken Dale to work with him. Mark’s son told me that Jenny had picked up Dale instead. I just couldn’t believe it. Mark knew we never went against the plan without talking it over first. I was irritated. I couldn’t wait until he called me on his break to see just what kind of reason he had for letting Dale go with her. Mark called me at work just before 2:30 p.m. He said that there was a reasonable explanation for deviating from the plan but because he was a little late leaving from the Aurora Village to downtown he would have to fill me in after he got home. Irritated or not, for the time being I had to settle for his brief explanation. I wished him, as I always did, “Drive safe. I love you,” and let him go back to work. I was not looking forward to the inevitable confrontation with my sister that was sure to follow when I picked up Dale later.
* * * *
Steven Gary Cool, 43, raggedy, tall and lean, a steely-eyed petty thief, Peeping Tom, a onetime Boy Scout, who favored sunglasses at night, collected pornography, ate dinner at street missions, and lived off free money from his parents was not an unusual character for those that rode the metro on Aurora Avenue. For this reason larger more intimidating bus drivers were often given this particular route.
Suffering from both severe chronic back pain and outward signs of paranoia, Cool so feared and disliked other bus passengers and bus drivers that he brazenly showed a handgun to one passenger and bragged that he was getting a second gun so he could deal with the "mean people who ride and drive buses.” His first attempt had failed. He had walked up to the driver of a moving bus, pointed a gun at the driver’s head and pulled the trigger, twice; the weapon misfired. The driver slammed on the breaks and in the panic of the moment unknowingly opened the door giving him a chance to escape.
Although Cool had been renting a sparse one-bedroom apartment for the past thirteen years, it looked as though it was occupied by a transient. A refrigerator stood empty and unused in the kitchen. Hundreds of outdated Metro bus schedules were stacked in an otherwise empty bookcase near the front door. An upright inflatable bed leaned against a wall. Tin foil covered all the windows. And in the bath, an aging clutter of creams and ointments littered an unused sink.
Sitting at the kitchen table in his dreary apartment by the dim light of a 40-watt bulb, Cool impatiently strummed his fingertips across the Formica for the umpteenth time. The clock on the wall said it was 2:15 P.M. He wasn’t sure how much more silence he could take. He strummed his fingers once more. He stood abruptly and turned towards the kitchen to pick up a piece of paper from off the floor. He found a grease laden pencil just underneath the drawer of the stove and wrote himself a note for later, “Don’t put plastic containers in oven'' and then tossed them carelessly onto the filthy floor, adding to the confetti of other written reminders of the simplest of tasks.
He glanced at the clock again; time to go. He pulled the fleece collar of his brown bomber jacket up to cover his ears and stepped out into the crisp November air. He put on his sun glasses, stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his coat and walked briskly and purposely the one block to the bus stop.
* * * *
Mark’s seventy-two foot passenger articulated diesel bus trundled southbound on Aurora Avenue North, stopping periodically for passengers amid the strip malls, motels and parking lots. Several boarded with Christmas packages from shopping and others were on their way into town for more shopping. Some boarded for a spontaneous journey just glad to be outside after a week of pouring rain. Some were just glad to be off of their feet after a long work shift and looked forward to settling in for a brief nap during the ride home while others headed off to work. Some passengers read while others visited quietly with each other. It was an unusually quiet ride even with thirty-two passengers on board.
The seats were occupied in no particular order and only one passenger, the last to board, chose to sit up front across from the driver, the very seat Dale would have occupied had he gone to work with Mark. As the bus approached the Aurora Bridge, that same passenger stood up and approached Mark as if he were going to ask him a question. But the man didn’t say a word. He pulled out a gun, pointed it at Mark, and shot him twice in his side instead.
It happened so fast that Mark didn’t have time to hit the emergency alarm. The man grabbed for the steering wheel. Mark fought him off, struggling to stay conscious and in control of the bus. The once lulling quiet was shattered by their confrontation. There were more popping sounds from the gun. A passenger in the back yelled “Gun! Gun!!” In a panic, riders fell to their knees and covered their heads. Before losing consciousness, Mark pushed on the brakes as hard as he could; leaving a permanent scar on the pavement. His firm grip lessened and he slumped unconscious over the steering wheel. The bus continued onward. It veered left and skidded another one-hundred feet before going out of control. The bus swerved into northbound oncoming traffic traveling forty-nine miles per hour. It hit a van, crushing it all the way to its bumper, and then jumped a fifteen inch curb and slammed into a guardrail. Grinding metal against metal and concrete, the bus ripped through a twenty-five foot section of the rail and barreled right into a light pole, bending it in half. And then Bus 359 flew off of the Aurora Bridge.
* * * *
Mark Francis McLaughlin, 44, a Seattle King County Metro bus driver for nearly twenty years, was both friendly and entertaining with his passengers. McLaughlin, just one of an elite group of exceptionally large bus drivers from North base, the kind of driver you’d want at the helm for any particularly rowdy route like the notorious stretch of Washington State Route 99 on Aurora Avenue North.
McLaughlin was a practical jokester, professionally as well as personally. He believed that people were too serious sometimes and needed a good laugh once in a while. So he took it upon himself and made an unwritten addendum to his job description. It was his daily goal to make as many people smile as he could. One of the ways in which he demonstrated this— in an especially entertaining fashion—was with his overhead microphone to announce the arrival of an upcoming destination. It was expected that whenever he approached a transit center it would be announced as the “Transient center.”
Always entertaining, he often wore a funny— yet some would say controversial— button pinned to the lapel of his shirt. The buttons would either start a conversation or be reciprocated with a glare. Although some of the buttons were confiscated by his boss, it only added fuel to the fire and gave him one more reason to wear others just like them. Little did unsuspecting passengers realize, but he kept notes to himself of the reactions he got for the antics he performed that day. If they were received well enough, he made sure to use those same ones again in the near future. For the children, with parental approval, he always had candy and at Christmas time he gave the children authentic, one-of-a-kind candy canes. There wasn’t a bus-riding child in Seattle who didn’t like him.
McLaughlin was peculiarly excited when the underground bus tunnels in downtown Seattle were opened. With or without a captive audience, he saw the tunnels an opportunity to transform his bus into a roller coaster. He drove through them at break neck speeds like a bat out of hell. And as he drove willy-nilly, with a huge wad of Bazooka bubble gum in his mouth, he’d blow the biggest bubble he could, open the driver side window, his long hair lashing around wildly, aim with careful precision for a specific direction sign, and spit the gum at it as hard as he could. His disgusting display of art was still there the last time I passed through.
I empathized with the person who had to clean up after his obscenely gross masterpiece. Whenever I happened to be along for the ride, if there were passengers that were witness to his insane behavior, I would avoid eye contact with them and keep my eyes averted until they finally left the bus. You can just imagine what they thought. And you can bet— more often than not— his antics would end up on complaint forms that awaited his next return to the bus base, sometimes on a weekly basis. But with little more than a slap on the hand, they didn’t go much further than that. And for awhile afterwards he would let up a little with his pranks, but it wasn’t long before he was back in full swing with more entertaining— or irritating, depending on how one saw it—antics to entertain the public. He was just that way. If he knew something about him bothered you, either in the way he dressed, spoke, or behaved, he would continue doing whatever it was just to irritate you even further.
McLaughlin had a serious side as well, especially when collecting the bus fare. It was a simple matter when driving into town as the fare was collected upon boarding. If the passenger didn’t have the funds, they didn’t ride. But it was quite another matter altogether when collecting the fair leaving town, as it was collected upon disembarking. Nothing irritated him more than a wisecracking passenger who thought they could get away without paying for passage. McLaughlin would simply close the doors of the bus and calmly continue driving, all the while chewing and loudly smacking on a large piece of bazooka bubble gum, blowing and popping large bubbles, apathetic to the obscenities hurled in his face, until the passenger coughed up their fare, sometimes taking them several miles from their intended destination, whether they paid in full or not. His legend preceded him; so much so that potentially unruly passengers would rather miss McLaughlin’s bus than risk parting with their coveted few cents or ending up in some unfamiliar part of town.
* * * *
Somebody yelled, “Oh my God! Were going off…” Passengers braced themselves for the impact, certain they were going to die. Mark’s airborne bus fell as if in slow motion some forty feet to the ground. The sleepy little neighborhood with twentieth century homes was changed forever by what happened next. The front end of the bus smashed onto the entry level of a two-story apartment complex. Sliding down the side of the tenement, the bus tore through evergreen trees and ripped off porches and stairways on its way down. Mark, not buckled into his seat, was ejected headfirst through the windshield and onto the roof of the building. Like the sound of five garbage trucks hitting the ground at the same time, the 40,000 pound bus landed hard on the front lawn of the dwelling. Mostly in one piece, it wrapped itself around a tree in a V shape before coming to rest practically in the lap of Mark’s beloved Fremont Troll. Big chunks of concrete followed its decent, showering everything and anyone below with a swirl of glass, metal, and blood. People were screaming, seats were breaking, and 75 gallons of diesel fuel was spilling everywhere from a ruptured fuel tank. The exact location was fateful. Five seconds later it would have plunged more than one hundred feet into Lake Union.