Tuesday, December 20, 2011

One Tough Ride (Part One)

I. Incident
     Tunny Bachlund was minding his own business just doing his duty. As one of the service staff of Leighton Waldfetter’s Amusement Grotto- just off Interstate 215 in San Bernardino- he had what he thought was a simple, pleasant job. All it actually required was that he go round about the place sweeping up cigarette butts candy wrappers and the worst of it, maybe swabbing out a bathroom now and then.

     So it was with some horror and chagrin that he should have witnessed what some said was an impossible thing, a terrible accident, no doubt, but for certain, very awful. That was because on this particular day Tunny watched with his own eyes the death of an entire family.

     The Fly Your Own Car ride was perhaps their most popular attraction nowadays. It was somewhat ingenious of Leighton Waldfetter to have come up with it, relying as it did on current technology to provide a wholesome occasion for the whole family. It was quite simple.

     A flying frame- two propeller engines and a stabilizing rear wing, as well as a set of main wings with flaps operated by an automated computer program- held an automobile (of choice) in its belly. The windshield and front seat of the car served as the plane’s cockpit. A partial roller coaster chute (decommissioned from former use) served as a launchramp. Running on wheels attached to the airframe, the entire contraption got an initial ignition at the base of the ramp- and launched itself up into the air to a level of about 600 feet. At that point, the computer program took over, and using vectored points on the ground, brought the car safely down after a short, 25 second fligt experience.

     At least that was how it usually worked or was supposed to. The entire system had been examined and given the apporval both of the NTSD and the FAA and even had passed a Governor’s Safety Commision review. Mr Waldfetter was releived that finally after 15 years, he had a potentially moneymaking amusement on hand. And the public loved it.

    Most especially, perhaps, was it loved by the Bobby Chavez family of Pasadena. On this particular day, they had come- four of them anyway- Bobby, his wife Marie, and their two sons, Oscar and Presto (Davis) - to drive Bobby’s 1973 Camaro up, out, and above the San Berdoo metropolis. They had come at least seven or eight times before, each time,  the boys in the back seat got a little more antsy with their Dad.

    “Make it go higher Dad! Make it go higher!”

    When Bobby tried to eplain to them that he could not that this was the way it just was, they would get deflated and cringe to themselves in the backseat, until the machine had landed them again on the short landing strip beside the freeway.

     But that was seven or eight times before today.

     After settling their car on the airframe and the attendants giving the thumbs up and “ready for takeoff” announcements that were broadcast all about the park on tinny loudspeakers, the ignition button was pressed, and the Contraption headed skyward for what would be its final time.

    Tunny Bachlund looked up just as the car-plane hit its appogee. And then, as it began to descend, he got a terrible cramp in his stomach. He watched as the Camaro achieved gravitational inertia and plunged, devoid of airframe, noiselessly to the ground. Noiselessly except perhaps to the barely audible screams of the Chavez family, trapped inside. He hid beside a restroom wall as the car hit the ground and exploded.

   The next thing he experienced was a ripping sensation in his shoulder as a shrapnel of a car window frame tore through it. He barely paid it any mind, however, his first thoughts were of the Chavez’s and getting to them to see if there was anything he might do. He rushed to the site of the column of smoke that rose just above the nearby treeline near the center of the park.

    Dozens of other visitors that day had the exact thoughts, and soon, there were many gathered around the remains of the car. Everyone was shaking their heads, sadly, it was all too obvious there would have been no survival for the Chavezes. Someone grabbed Tunny by his other shoulder pulled him aside and told him he’d better get that arm looked at. The stranger dragged him to the park’s office- manned now by only one secretary, who had heard the noise, but had continued her typing and sipping a cup of coffee- and the stranger asked her for a first aid kit.

    Tunny’s shoulder was obviously gashed but luckily for him the shrapnel had but passed right through it. The stranger said he needed more bandage, perhaps to get him a splint (the nice secretary pulled a ruler out of her drawer, handed it to them, and continued typing) to immobilize his arm. Obviously if he tried using his arm, he’d only exacerbate the injury. It would be another several weeks before he could use the arm again. Meanwhile, the stranger suggested that he file for Workman’s Comp. And get to a hospital.

     It turned out he didn’t even need the hospital, because within a few minutes paramedics had arrived on the scene to survey the damage and attend to the Chavezes, who were now beyond anyone’s help but the angels. They patched Tunny up but good, and called for the morgue wagons. They searched thorough Bobby’s wallet for phone numbers of relatives. Luckily, Bobby had thought to leave a list of emergency contacts there for just such a situation, and it was a sad paramedic who put through the calls to Bobby’s Mom and Dad in Westlake.

II. Preliminary Hearing
     It was going to be a long day for Tunny. Not only did he have to be at the courthouse that morning for a hearing regarding Mr Waldfetter’s amusement park but he was also scheduled to appear as a material witness at the NTSB investigation to be held across town that afternoon.
     He felt more than a little nervous in the courtroom. A bailiff set the tone for the morning as he called the court to order..
    “All Rise. The Superior Court of the Sate of California for San Bernardino County is now in session, the honorable Davenport Fisk presiding. Please be seated.”

     The judge asked the clerk, a mousy blonde with thick glasses, to read out the docket.
     “This case is the State of California vs. Mr. Leighton Waldfetter, to show cause as to why Waldfetter Entertainment Systems Incorporated should not stand trial in a criminal matter of malfeasance and gross negligence in the death of four California citizens: Mr Bobby Chavez, Mrs. Mirada Chavez, and Timothy and Davis Chavez, minors”.
      Two rows up from Tunny, inside the court arena, sat Mr. Waldfetter, his attorney, and a County Prosecutor. The prosecutor called Mr. Waldfetter to the witness stand.
     “State your name.”
     “Leighton  Landcaster  Waldfetter.”
    “Motion picture director and theme park operator.”
     “Mr. Fetterwald, do you know why this hearing is being held?”
     “Indeed I do. It is a teriible tragedy.”
     “Indeed it was, a terrible tragedy. We have broughtyou here to answer for the fact that apparently your corporation holds no risk insurance regarding incidents of this kind. We have examined the state and county corporate files, and we find absolutely nothing to show such a responsibility was ever considered…”
     “Well you see, we have had an excellent safety record ever since the park began. Something like 4,000,000 visitors have been through the park since we opened in
   “And how long has the ride titled “Fly Your Own Car” been operating?”
    “About six years. We have had an average of fifteen flights per day, out of the three hundred and twenty days of the year we are open. And this is the very first such a time that an accident of this nature has occurred.”
     “Mr Waldfetter, can you tell me a little something about the corporation. What is the net worth, in your estimation, at this time, and how many shareholders do you  have?”
     “I reckon that at this point in time our net worth is on the order of about three billion dollars. Excluding debt liabilities. That includes our subsidiaries such as Waldfetter Pictures, our merchandising lines, and travel concessions.”
    The judge turned his head and asked for the prosecutor and defense attorney to come to the bench.  He spoke in a low whisper.

     “Bob, where are you going with this? I hold twenty five shares of FttW myself. I don’t think there’s a major player in this county who doesn’t in fact have apiece of Waldfetter. I suggest that you take another line of tack.” Indeed, the judge himself had made it a personal point to buy up shares of all and every corporation filing state papers in the county. He enjoyed being able to make influential remarks at stakeholder meetings.

   As the attorneys resumed their questioning, Tunny managed to have a long look at his employer. He had never been less than fiteen feet from him at any one time, now, a distance of five feet less than that separated them. Waldfetter, bristly-mustaschioed, sat in a three piece corduroy suit with his nails well-filed. He was the picture of modern success. He didn’t want to be here, and it showed. Tunny was only too glad to be sitting further back.

    The prosecutor, Bob Flynn, had been an investor of Waldfetter himself at one time. He had actually taken a beating however, when he divested, and had been considering pillorying Waldfetter for it. But he decided, if he needed to, he might just “take Waldfetter outside” to handle that matter. Meanwhile, he resumed on a different angle.

    “We have noted that the corporation does not hold risk insurance. As we are here to determine whether or not your coproration is laible for damages under state law in the untimely deaths of the Chavez family”-

   Bobby’s mother could be heard breaking into deep sobs from the back of the courtroom. She was ushered outside by a friend who had accompanied her.

     The prosecutor barely acknowledged the brief interruption and continued.
    “Because we wish to determine the liability of your corporation, we are asking that you turn over all papers related to the operation of the park as well and in particular that you provide us copies of the plans for the ride itself such as may be warranted as well as material to the concurrent Safety Board investigation.”
   Waldfetter’s attorney, a small man wearing patches on his jacket, jumped up to object.
   “Sit down, Larry” said the judge. I understand why you might object, and I overrule that”.

    Larry Betinsky had had more than his share of bad days in the courtroom of Davenport Fisk. That the judge was on a first name basis with them both was an interesting fact, for Tunny. Betinsky was hoping that he could play for time, because the ability to provide copies of the plans was going to take more than a few days.
    He noted that fact to the judge. The judge then said, “In light of time needed for preparation of these documents then, I want to move forward. Could you please call any relevant witnesses, Mr Flynn? You are excused, Mr Waldfetter”.
    “Yes, your honor we call to the stand Mr. Tunny Bachlund.”

    Tunny felt like a heap of sweat and fur as he made his way past the bar to the witness box. As he passed Waldfetter, he felt the curious burning sensation of a bug beneath a microscope. Waldfetter barely recognized Tunny. Who he might be he could barely guess. His puzzled expression spoke for itself.

   “State your name.”
  “Tunny James Bachlund.”
  “I am a custodian at Waldfetter Amusement Grotto.”
   “Mr Bachlund, how long have you worked for Mr. Waldfetter?”
    “About four years now. I been hoping for a promotion.”
    “As well you might son! Ok, please tell us, what did you see on the day in question? What were you doing, and what happened to you.”
   “I was sweeping up the side of the johns that faces away from the Fly Your Car ride.
I heard the countdown like they always do and so I looked up to watch. I think it’s a beautiful thing, to watch them things take off, fly about, and land all by themselves.”
   “You were standing near the restroom. Then what?”
    “Well, I seen the car drop from the airplane. It was sick. It’s like, I knew whoever was inside was gonna buy the farm, you know? And I don’t know why, but, I ducked behind the wall some so that when it landed maybe nothing would hit me.”
   “But of course, something did hit you.”
    “Yeh. I got stuck with a piece of window when it exploded. I knew it would.”

    “What did you do next?”
     “Well I heard the big boom, and then like everyone else I guess, I went running to go see.  It was sad. They were all a tangle, and the front end of the car had scrunched up so far it appeared Mr and Mrs Chavez had been squeezed like lemons.  And the poor kids. They were hanging out the back window like there never was one there to begin with.
Man, do I…”
    “That’s OK Tunny, I think that’s well enough. What happened then?
    “Well the paramedics came of course and they were shaking their heads, they had never seen nothing so sick, either, and they noticed my shoulder. They made me this splint and told me I was a fuckin’ lucky dude.”

    The judge peered over the edge of his seat. “Young man, you’re in my courtroom..”

    Tunny looked back to the judge and continued- “One lucky dude. I suppose I really was. The one paramedic guy goes to me, “Another seven inches to the right, kid, and you would have been instantly killed”. I guess they tell me now I can draw Workmen’s Comp for a while. They tell me I have to keep it imm- imm-“
    “Yeh, that’s it. So I have to lose work while it heals up, I suppose. Ain’t no good to fly with one wing. I need the other arm for my dustpan…”
   “No indeed it’s not” said Mr. Flynn, who shot a glare in Waldfetter’s direction as he said so. He continued.
    “Now, Mr Bachlund, are you aware of how the Fly Your Own Car attraction works?”
    “Kinda, sorta. They get the people to drive their car up to the ramp and back it into the plane part. Then it goes onto the launching ramp. A guy in the control booth hits the button and the countdown tape plays. At ‘zero’ it takes off. It has I guess a kinda computer program, it flies around by itself a bit and then it comes back down. They unbuckle the car and the people drive off. I guess it’s a pretty popular ride.”
    “You said they “unbuckle” the car. Are you aware that one of the other attendants has to make sure of this?”
    “Oh, yeh. Usually it’s this dude, Frank. I dunno, I don’t know if I saw him around that afternoon.”
    “Are you aware of his last name?”
   “Nah, I never asked.”

    Attorney Flynn turned to the Judge. “Judge Fisk, I request the power to subpoena this “Frank Doe” pending research into his identity and whereabouts.”
    Judge Fisk replied, “Permission granted. This court will stand in recess until ten AM tomorrow. Meanwhile, Attorney Betinsky will provide the court with the requested papers related to the operation of the attraction, and will provide us the identity of the possible absent witness. All are excused.”

    Fisk and Betinsky held a short conversation. Tunny walked out of the courtroom, where he was surrounded at the entrance by a mob of reporters and flashbulb photographers. They shouted questions at him. Meanwhile, behind him, Waldfetter beat a hasty escape, a portfolio shielding his face from the reporters. He dissapeared into a waiting stretch limo.
   Tunny could not stand around being hassled by all these newsmen. He barely could but put two sentences together, for the moment. The sun was hot and blazing. He was sweating even worse than before. He considered going back home to change his t-shirt and take a shower before heading for the Safety Board hearing later.

    As Tunny grumpily beat away reporters and headed back down the street to his apartment,  Flynn and Betinsky emerged from the courthouse together. They played their own way past the reporters, and headed in the opposite direction to a small café where they shared coffee and sandwiches.
    Flynn was the first to take his stance.   
   “Well, Betinsky, you had better best get all the stuff the Judge is asking for. I know he will not stand for any kind of cover up from Waldfetter.”
    “Well, don’t you think maybe he has a conflict of interest being a shareholder?”
    “No. My wife herself still has some stock in Waldfetter’s crap. No, I suppose the judge is right that kicking open that can of worms will only make getting to the bottom of things worse. And you better go catch that material witness, Frank-what-the-fuck’ses-name. If you don’t, I’ll ask Fisk to provide us a warrant for his arrest and sic the Sheriffs on him”.    

    “How is it not a conflict of interest? My client is entitled to impartiality. I know it’s odd for me to be the one to ask it, but if the judge is in any way going to bias himself, don’t you think that my client deserves someone who won’t be anything but fair?”
   “Strange of  you to be the one, indeed. But mind you,  the state is not interested in a witchhunt around shareholders, we want to get the truth about why this happened at all. Four innocent people are dead and someone is responsible and without insurance, your client is a sitting duck. Or a dead one.” Flynn leaned back smirking, took a sip of coffee, and continued.
   “The way I see it, maybe the best thing would be for Waldfetter to cut a deal. Use as the bait this Frank kid, maybe get Waldfetter to sweat it out.  My feeling is it’s all this kid’s fault, maybe,  pinning the blame where it belongs could help Waldfetter out a little. Do you really want to see a pillar of the community pilloried? Your client, I mean. Because the press are already out to have a field day, you know. Maybe he oughta cut a deal and go off on a vacation someplace, lower his profile a little bit.”
     “My client is not going to take blame nor anything lying down. If the fault is due to one of his employees, he will certainly use disciplinary action and support any judgment of the court to prosecute further.  We are going to fight this idea of yours to bring any summary judgment matters about insurance to a foregone conclusion.”
   “Of course not, Betinsky, you have fees to raise. But in the interest of justice…”
   “In the interest of justice I request that we end this discussion right away. I am headed to the Waldfetter offices to look up all that stuff. We will see you in court tomorrow.”

    Betinsky brushed the crumbs from his sandwich off his necktie and left the café. Flynn sat at the table for about ten minutes more, watching the passing sidewalk.

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