A tragic train derailment, the dying words of one of its victims, a fabled ruby necklace, a strained childhood friendship, a turn-of-the-century attempted murder, a terrifying storm that washes a 150-year-old secret to the surface -- all come together as part of a tangled, multi-generational mystery that eventually takes an entire town to decipher.
Read an Excerpt from The Rhythm of Selby!
Reverend Ridley Knox leaned in closely to the dying lips, trying desperately to hear this poor man’s words. He’d known Dennis Robecheaux all his life.
Dennis’s last coughing spasm had been a rough one. Ridley, a hospital chaplain for more than 20 years, judged it would, indeed, be the last. The chemical stench of chlorine still rose from Dennis like a public pool. It came from his hair, his breath, the very pores of his skin. Twelve had already died. Dennis would be number 13. Dear God, let him be the last, Ridley prayed.
Five days and 12 hours ago, at exactly 12:06 a.m., a Southern Railways freight train, carrying 70 tons of toxic liquid chlorine, had been sent by mistake to a side rail, ramming three stationary rail cars and spilling a cloud of deadly fumes over a 2-mile radius just outside of Selby, South Carolina. The epicenter of the accident was less than 100 yards from the town’s primary industry, a brick production facility, Carolina Bricks.
The night shift at Carolina Bricks, 25 men and 18 women, were trapped. Heroic efforts by the plant workers themselves, as well as Selby’s Public Safety officers and the County Sheriff’s Office, got them out. And then they evacuated the town’s northwest side of more than 6,000 residents. But 11 died in the process. Eight employees and three rescue workers. The train’s engineer made 12. And now, one bystander, bringing the toll to 13.
In those first horrifying hours following the crash, Ridley remembered thinking about the Biblical passage, John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man, than he would lay down his life for his friends,” because that’s exactly what happened. No one died in the accident as a result of a selfish act. All who perished were thinking of, or trying to help, someone else. They laid down their lives for each other.
Even Dennis, who wasn’t a safety officer and didn’t work for Carolina Bricks, was found with his body wrapped protectively around a stray dog. He succeeded in saving the dog’s life, but was losing his own – here, today, after suffering untold misery for 5 days and 12 hours. For the most part, Dennis had been incoherent. But within the last 24 hours, he had become surprisingly lucid. Then, about an hour ago, he asked repeatedly for Reverend Knox. Ridley had been at his side ever since, but Dennis had slipped in and out of a merciful coma.
While Ridley waited, his mind went lovingly over the memories of those lost in the tragedy. Harry Jackson, Carolina Bricks’ night foreman, had been the first to grasp what was happening. He rang the alarm, dialed 911, and called to his co-workers to run to the break room – the farthest, most air-tight part of the building. Jenna Busbee, who lived just a few blocks from the plant, tried instead to reach her home, her sleeping husband, her two kids, and their four dogs. The Coroner thought Jenna was probably the first of the eight plant workers to die. She was found in the parking lot just a few feet from the exterior door.
Robby Cadwalader, a night-shift regular, was found behind the wheel of his jeep. Everyone knew he lived with his only brother, a man who “never grew up” the townspeople said. His brother, called John-John, depended on Robby for everything. No one was surprised that Robby’s first thoughts were to get to John-John. But the car’s systems reacted as fatally to the fumes as human ones. It simply died in the middle of the street, Robby with it.
Despite the employees’ attempt to seal themselves into the break room, the toxic gas crept through every crack and crevice. Its choking effects were instant. Breathing was impossible. Uncontrollable vomiting compounded the other hideous bodily reactions to the poison. Panic was as hard to fight as the tears that blinded eyes shut as tightly as humanly possible. Flesh burned as if it had been in a raging fire. Even deeply colored clothing bleached in the saturated air to a faded, ghostly white.
Death came soon to five more. Of the Carolina Bricks employees, Jules Thompson was next. Father of a newborn, Jules’ wife and their infant daughter were still in the hospital a safe 5 miles away. Jules tried to find out if there were other workers outside of the plant. Twice, he left the relative safety of the room, and came back with at least one other person.
The third time, he never returned.
Then came Bubba Newcome. Bubba was six months away from retirement. His boat was sitting in his driveway a few blocks away. It was his pride and joy, his retirement dream. He spent hours polishing and primping that boat to shining glory. By the time Bubba was buried, the chlorine gas had completely corrupted the finish on the boat and even compromised the structure of its Fiberglass. Paint bubbled and peeled.
Wiring corroded and disintegrated. Bubba’s wife just left it where it stood, a crumbling memorial to Bubba, their dreams, and their lost future together. They said he kept encouraging everyone to hang on and tried to pray for them, until the fumes prevented him from speaking at all.
Public Safety volunteer, Big Jake Dooley, was the first rescue worker to arrive on the scene. He knew the drill; you wait until you have protection for yourself before you enter a dangerous situation – and never, ever, go in without backup. But he also knew just about everyone that worked at Carolina Bricks. And he knew they were dying. He carried 10 to safety in his truck, but it gave out on the way back. On foot, he staggered in one more time. Reaffirming his name “Big Jake” with honors that morning, he carried one more out on his back, got her to a clean air pocket, then collapsed and died on the spot.
Deputy Carrie Jo Tanner had only been on the job for less than 6 months. No amount of training could have prepared her for this. And no amount of instruction could have taught her the kind of courage she demonstrated. Without regard for her personal safety, she began hosing people down with water, covering their faces with wet towels, and pushing them toward streets that would lead them out of the chemical massacre. She was 21 years old. She was personally responsible for saving at least eight lives.
Johnson Aubrey was working night shift to finish putting himself through school. He, too, had called emergency 911, but could barely speak through the choking poison. His recorded blurred words and pleas for help for his coworkers were played over and over on the television newscasts with heartbreaking regularity in the days that immediately followed the accident. He died trying to help two others: Esther and Estelle Jameson.
The Jameson sisters were finally pulled unconscious into the break room by foreman Harry Jackson. It was his last act on this earth. Esther and Estelle were among the first to be transported to the hospital, but died later that day. In life, they had been devoted to each other. Neither married and they fought like only sisters can – constantly, cruelly, yet always just short of doing any real emotional harm. When Estelle fell, Esther refused to leave her, and was destined to prolonged inhalation of the chemical. In death, they were still inseparable, and died within two hours of each other.
Marcus Antony Vawter, a 15-year veteran of the volunteer rescue workers, and a survivor of Desert Storm, died two days after the event. One by one, he led or carried half-a-dozen people from the plant, and then went door-to-door in the surrounding neighborhood waking people up, telling them to close all their doors and windows, to bring their animals inside, and to turn off any air-conditioning or vents. He promised he’d be back to help them to safety as soon as he could. Ruthie, his wife, said Mac kept trying to get out of his hospital bed to keep that promise. His burned lungs eventually gave out, but not his will. His eyes were blinded, but he still could see the faces that needed him.
At exactly 12:04 a.m., Jonathan Tolbert, the engineer of the Southern Railways freight train carrying the load of chlorine, finished a second cup of coffee and came into view of the lights of the Carolina Bricks facility. Rounding the bend, he carefully checked his speed – the required 30-miles-an-hour in a populated area. He thought about how much he would hate a confining plant job like that. No excitement of traveling through the night air. No discovering new places, new people. He loved how his family greeted him every time he came home after being gone for days, sometimes weeks.
In the last minute before impact, John had time to realize something was very, very wrong; the train veered to the left instead of traveling straight. The lights were green. The train hadn’t jumped the track. His brain ticked off the possible causes. Someone must have left the switch open by mistake. Then he saw it. There was something ahead in the darkness. Something on the track.
In the final seconds, John prayed for the people in the plant. He was the first to die that night.
Reverend Knox brought himself back to the moment as Dennis’ hand tightened on his. He leaned forward again. What was Dennis trying to say?
“Not real,” Dennis whispered. “Blood isn’t real. Forgive us.”
“Dennis, I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Ridley replied. “What blood? Forgive who?”
All he could think of was that Dennis was somehow asking for forgiveness for the three railroad workers who had been responsible for not switching the track from the side back to the main after they had off-loaded the empty cars. The three men who had to live with the idea that the loss of more than a dozen lives rested on their shoulders. Two men, now. The third had not been able to live with the guilt, and had taken his own life just days later.
Ironically, in his sad and remorseful note, this man had found the one bright spot of the tragedy. “Thank God,” he had written, “that it was not a few hours later. Thank God, the children were not in school. But God forgive us for causing them to lose their mothers and fathers.” His hunting rifle had put his anguish to rest. He was never counted in the official death toll.
He was right. Within a few hundred yards in the other direction of the track was Lincoln Elementary School, with over 150 students. Less than eight hours after the crash, the bell rang for the first class. It sounded haunting and hollow in the empty halls and playgrounds. And people thanked God.
But Dennis had no connection with these men or the crash, as far as Ridley knew. So why was he asking for forgiveness for them?
Dennis struggled to raise his head a few inches and whispered even more desperately into Ridley’s ear: “Please … tell Big Jake … I’m sorry … sorry.”
Ridley remembered the words. Pondered them. Wrote them down on a piece of yellow paper a few days later, and put them carefully in a drawer. And then went to bury poor Dennis.
Dennis was laid to rest in the old cemetery next to the Presbyterian church where six generations of Robecheauxs preceded him.
Read the Reviews!
"Marti Healy’s novel, The Rhythm of Selby, is as warm and comforting as a morning bowl of grits. This is not a story of murder and mayhem, but a much more sedate mystery that speaks about the people of the South and their culture ... It is a gift to be opened with care and treasured word for word.”
~ Jeffrey B. Wallace - Editor, Aiken Standard
“With her gift of capturing details of places and painting pictures with words, author Marti Healy puts the reader on the scene, capturing a sense of place in a small Southern town. Once you read The Rhythm of Selby, you may never again look at your own home town in the same way.”
~ Idella Bodie - Author of Carolina Girl, and numerous other historical novels set in the South
“In this wonderfully imaginative novel, Marti Healy has captured the quintessential nature of a small southern town. Her ever-curious mind led her to diligently observe people, places and events and she has woven them into an intricate interactive story. Her personalities evolve subtly with insight, love and humor, so that one senses that you have known them all your life. The mystery that is pondered in the opening pages sneaks up on you slowly, gently and compassionately. When you finish this story, you want to immediately go back to page one and read it again.”
~ Penny Alexander - Aiken, South Carolina
Marti Healy has been a professional award-winning copywriter for more than 30 years. The majority of this time was spent with The Design Group, Inc., a total communications firm, where she served as vice president and senior writer.
She has also been a contributing columnist for The Aiken Standard daily newspaper since 2004.
The God-Dog Connection was her first published book. Her first novel, The Rhythm of Selby, won a 2009 Bronze Medal for Popular Fiction from the Independent Publishers Awards for Excellence, and two Indie Awards in 2010 for writing and design. Her second novel was launched in June 2010, titled The Secret Child and is appealing to a wide range of readers, including Young Adult and Adult; it was selected as a 2010 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA).
Marti is a popular speaker on the topic of her books as well as her columns and on writing in general. She has also appeared on numerous television talks shows and special features on news broadcasts in the southeast.
Currently, Marti lives in Aiken, South Carolina, with dogs Sophie and Teddy, and cat Sparkey.
She is actively developing a new animal-oriented faith-based book, as well as a new novel.
You can visit Marti online at http://www.martihealybooks.com/Home_Page.html.