My hands came to rest on top of my head. I looked at a friend standing beside me and said, "Oh my God -- he just got hit!" In complete shock and denial, her eyes glazed over, and she said with an eerie calm, "That didn't just happen."
I looked over at my wife, Brittany, who knew full well that it had happened. Soon, we all started running down the track in the direction the train was going. We ran across six lanes of Broward Boulevard. Then I heard Brittany yell, "There he is!"
I was scared as hell. I didn't want to see him. I thought he would be cut in half. I thought, Sean Rowe can't be dead. He's too cool and too good to be dead. He has too many great tales to tell. And more than anything, he had a great novel to write.
But there he was, curled up in a tight fetal position beside the track about 30 yards from where he'd been hit. His body seemed impossibly small, about the size of a suitcase. Brittany initially thought it was a small bag of leaves. As we approached him, the fear in me grew. We stood over him, all of us yelling his name. Brittany knelt by him. He was in one piece. Blood was pouring from his mouth. One of his eyes was a God-awful mess with a pool of blood in the socket. The other was bruised and swollen. And he was in and out of some form of consciousness.
Knowing he was in capable hands, I fled into the darkness toward the cars backed up on Broward. Someone had to call 911. This was perfectly logical, but I also knew it was an escape -- I didn't want to see a friend die.
It was late, after midnight, and we'd all been drinking. People rolled up their windows when they saw me coming, but one very kind woman opened her door and made the call.
This wasn't the going-away we'd imagined. Rowe, who was the first writer hired by New Times Broward-Palm Beach when it started in 1997, was leaving the paper to write a novel in North Carolina. It was January 15, 1999, and we'd been drinking on the company's tab in his honor at a bar in the Himmarshee district. We were walking back to our cars in anticipation of God-knows-what more bacchanalian adventures when it happened.
Now, you may think it's impossible to accidentally walk in front of a speeding freight train. But it was made possible by another train, which was running on the southbound track when it happened. While we stood waiting for that train to pass, Sean crossed the empty northbound tracks to get close to the first train. We had no idea what he was doing. Then he tossed a quarter on the track. It was a damned kid's game. As he walked back toward us, he stepped again on the northbound track. In that instant, the other train, its sound masked by the first, suddenly rushed through and swallowed him.
When I returned, my wife was holding his head in her arms, comforting him. Brittany, whom Sean still credits with saving his life, was fearless. She managed to coax him back to consciousness and was gently urging him to fight for his life.
He survived. Barely. Sean suffered a badly fractured skull, a collapsed lung, several broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and other assorted ailments. He'd been battered -- and saved -- by the train's iron cowcatcher in the front. It kept him from being crushed underneath.
During the past six years, I've kept in pretty steady contact with Sean, though I've seen him only a few times, once in the hospital and at a couple of parties. He walked with a cane and seemed older. There was a bit of lingering nerve damage and a whole lot of pain. I wondered if he could possibly make a full recovery. One question that lingered: Could Sean, who happens to be one of the best writers I've ever known, still compose that novel?
His first book, Fever, came out earlier this month, and he made a promotional swing through South Florida last week. It was published by Little, Brown, which gave him a two-book deal with an advance in the low six-figures. It's a thriller and it's a very good one that I think puts him in the top tier of crime fiction writers. He received some good reviews and glowing blurbs from a few big names in fiction, including mega-seller James Patterson, a fellow Little, Brown author.