In Fluke Accident, Sculpture of Whale Tails Saves Train From 33-Foot Plunge

Aptly named “Saved by the Whale’s Tale,” the art installation prevented a potentially deadly accident in the Netherlands

A red and silver metro train rests precariously, hanging off of the train tracks, with the first car resting on one of two enormous sculptures of whale tails. Below, six construction workers asses the damage.
On November 2, a metro train shot through a stop block at the De Akkers metro station outside of Rotterdam but narrowly missed catastrophe. Photo by Robin Utrecht / ANP / AFP via Getty Images

Early yesterday, a Dutch train and its operator narrowly avoided an accident after ploughing through the barrier at the end of the metro’s elevated rails. Luckily, instead of plunging 33 feet and crashing into the ground below, the car landed precariously on an enormous sculpture of whale tails that flanks the end of the tracks.

The train operator, who was the only person on board at the time of the crash, was able to free himself from the wreckage and sustained no injuries, writes Daniel Boffey for the Guardian. As first reported by Dutch news agency Media TV, the accident occurred at the De Akkers station in Spijkenisse, a suburb of Rotterdam, around 12:30 a.m. local time. No other people were harmed in the incident.

Officials don’t yet know the cause of the accident, but they’ve launched an investigation to determine how the train’s safety features failed, Ruud Natrop, a spokesman for safety in the Rotterdam-Rijnmond area, tells Isabella Kwai and Claire Moses of the New York Times. Police interviewed the conductor but found no indication that he had done anything wrong, Natrop adds.

By mid-morning Monday, word of the crash had spread, and dozens of people gathered to catch a glimpse of the spectacular near-disaster. As the Associated Press reports, local authorities urged crowds to disperse, reminding them that Covid-19 precautionary measures were still in effect.

“It’s like the scene of a Hollywood movie,” Natrop tells the Times. “Thank God the tail was there.”

Now-retired architect Maarten Struijs designed the sculpture—which consists of two large whale tails raised about 33 feet above the ground—in 2002. Coincidentally, notes Agence France-Presse (AFP), the artwork is named Saved by the Whale’s Tail. It riffs on the idea of a “tail track,” the phrase used to describe the bit of track where trains park at the end of service, reports Dutch news website DUIC.

Struijs tells DUIC that he received a phone call notifying him of the accident while reading the newspaper with his morning cup of coffee. He expressed shock that the sculpture, which is made of reinforced plastic, was able to support the weight of the train car.

“I could never have imagined it that way, but it saved the operator’s life,” Struijs tells Dutch broadcaster RTL. “The damage is an afterthought,”

He adds, “I am amazed that it is so strong. … When plastic has stood for 20 years, you don’t expect it to [hold up] a metro train.”

Speaking with Dutch broadcaster NOS, Struijs says that the image of the damaged metro balancing on his sculpture resembles, in his eyes, “a work of art in itself.” He notes that photos of the scene remind him of Rode BMW (or Red BMW), a 1987 conceptual art piece by Kunst & Vaarwerk that features a life-size red car protruding through a parking garage wall as if frozen mid-fall.

As of Tuesday morning, an operation to salvage the train with two large cranes was ongoing, writes the Associated Press in a separate report. On Monday, Carly Gorter, a spokeswoman for the local security authority, told the AP that officials were working to figure out how to safely extract the train from its perch.

The removal will be “tricky,” noted Gorter.

Photographer Joey Bremer arrived at the scene shortly after the crash. His images of the lofted metro car won viral acclaim on Twitter; as Bremer tells the Times, he woke up on Monday to thousands of retweets and hundreds of messages.

“I stood there full of disbelief,” the photographer says. “I’ve been doing this job for about years, but this is one to remember. You can’t make this up.”

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