God works in costly ways

11th March 2005 at 00:00
It's hard to credit, I know, but not every word I say is believed by everyone. I find my credibility index rises in direct (or is it inverse) proportion to my distance from the college front door.

So I hope that I have enough standing on this page for you to believe this incredible story.

It started at the end of a bad week involving a theft of some irreplaceable and uncopied personal documents from my car, falling flat on my face in mud while trying to rescue a bogged down SUV (no, not mine, I have some sense left), being bitten by a dog, and being forced to take two days' precious holiday in far away Leeds, where all this happened, to get everything sorted.

No, I don't expect any sympathy because I know how rotten your life is at times too, especially if you live in Leeds.

I was cheered up, however, to discover from Leeds police that the stolen documents, which were scattered to the four winds by the thieves, had been rounded up and handed in by a kind Yorkshire man to whom I am forever in debt (and that's no place to be with a Yorkshire man, I'm told). So there is a God -and she probably lives in Harrogate.

I returned to my West Midands college looking forward to a few stress-free days -but Mother Nature had other things planned. A great wind blew across the campus, searching for weaknesses and finding one in a tall tree on the rim of the college grounds.

To the senior manager who observed what follows, the tree looked like any other. But it wasn't. This one was a wimp, tired of the long cold winter and ready to end it all. Its nemesis, the aforementioned gale, charged like a pack of thirsty Irish forwards heading for the bar, across the car park, through the all-weather football pitch and smashed its full force against our suicidal tree.

The tree bent, shuddered, sighed, creaked like the knee-joints in a retirement home for carpet-fitters before finally tearing its huge roots out of the ground and standing, just for a moment, upright and unfettered, like a scene from Lord of the Rings. Those lucky enough to see it say it staggered forward a few inches on its novice feet before toppling, ever so slowly, in the direction of the main Redditch to Lichfield railway line, which runs past the border of the college estate.

It would have crashed on to the railway line itself but for the kindly intervention of the electric cables powering the trains, which daily bring the city's scholars to the college doorstep, eager to push back the boundaries of ignorance another few centimetres.

The power lines stopped the tree in a shower of bright blue and orange sparks. The tree, glad of some warmth at last, promptly burst into flames and burned brightly and beautifully in its perch several feet above a point on the track, where the unsuspecting and packed 10.30 from Birmingham New Street to Lichfield was due to pass at any moment.

Our manager-observer was horrified by the potential disaster unfolding before his very eyes. Worse, he realised that any crash would take place just 50 yards from the nursery, full of jolly two and three-year-old student off-spring.

The train rattled ever nearer. Then, its brakes howled and screeched as the desperate driver, eyes popping and mouth open in anticipatory horror, tried to avert a tragedy. Thankfully, it was almost stationary when the blazing tree dropped through the electric lines and on to its roof.

Luckily, the passengers were Brummies and well used to a rough ride on the cross-city commuter train. They ambled forward to the front carriage and scrambled in a world-weary fashion up the bank to safety. Just another lousy journey on a local train. The toddlers were evacuated and enjoyed a makeshift playground elsewhere.

The minute our senior manager observer saw what was about to happen, he thought "disaster recovery plan". Every college is obliged to have one.

Off he rushed to get it and sure enough on page 14 he found: "major rail disaster"; under subsection four he found "falling trees" and in a further subsection the plan covered trees which caught fire when falling. Nothing on nurseries, though.

A miracle: the plan covered the accident in almost every detail and there, under "appropriate action", our manager read what he could never have worked out for himself: "telephone the police and the fire brigade immediately". He did and four hours later the train was off under its own steam.

This story is true in all but one respect: the disaster plan has only 13 pages.

Unfortunately, Network Rail is now suing us "as the owner of the tree", to recover its costs.

Naturally, this eventuality is covered in our risk assessment strategy (thank you, auditors). So we have forwarded the claim to God, whose Act this was, with a copy to the Archbishop of Birmingham, just in case.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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