Groping for Meaning

April 04, 1994

Robert Wayne Knight's fatal plunge last Thursday into a gaping sinkhole that suddenly appeared on Route 31 is another reminder that life is fragile.

Like the 20 people who lost their lives when a tornado struck a church in Alabama last month, or the Los Angeles police officer who rode his motorcycle off a highway overpass as it ruptured during the Jan. 17 earthquake, Mr. Knight was a victim of natural forces beyond human control.

After these inexplicable tragedies, one can't help but ask "what if?" What if Mr. Knight had decided to turn toward Westminster on his break to buy food instead of toward New Windsor? What if the tornado leveled the Alabama church three hours earlier when it was empty? What if that L.A. officer, Clarence Dean, hadn't been patrolling on Interstate 5? Only in books and movies can we turn back the clock and reverse tragedies.

Unlike most accidents, these victims did nothing to put themselves in special jeopardy. They were just going about their daily lives -- working a late night shift at Westminster's wastewater treatment plant, practicing for an Easter pageant, patrolling the roads -- and out of nowhere their lives came to abrupt ends.

These tragedies are reminders that we never totally succeed at mastering or understanding the forces of nature. We build buildings, bridges and roads that supposedly can withstand cataclysmic amounts of flooding, wind and shaking, but still they collapse or wash away.

Route 31 is a well-engineered country road. It has not buckled or cracked from extreme temperatures, heavy truck loads or last winter's ice.

Yet, all the stress and dynamic analyses done before the road was built never anticipated the underground erosion of the limestone substrata. Maybe testing will reveal other underground caverns beneath the road, but any subsequent reinforcement won't restore Mr. Knight's life.

The rest of us struggle to find some meaning in these tragedies. Alas, we usually don't find much at all.

What meaning can there be when a father of three with another child on the way, a combatant who survived the Persian Gulf war, dies on his way to the 7-Eleven when the road opens up beneath him?

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