SAN JOSE, CA—Though Federal Microvehicular Safety Administration officials stress that it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions, a family dog is widely regarded as the probable cause of the miniature chuck-wagon disaster that shocked the nation last Wednesday.
According to an FMSA report released Monday, the crash—which resulted in the deaths of the chuck wagon's miniature driver and four passengers, as well as the loss of more than one pound of hearty "Chuck Wagon"-brand gravy-flavored dog-food cargo and a team of four miniature draft horses—is "in all likelihood" attributable to the presence of one or more pet dogs in the kitchen at the time of the accident.
"Preliminary studies of the chuck-wagon wreckage, combined with analysis of data recovered from the miniscule carriage's 'black box,' strongly suggest that, unknown to chuck-wagon traffic-controllers monitoring the wagon's progress, the kitchen was occupied by at least one pet animal, probably a dog, which pursued and overtook the chuck wagon in the final moments before it vanished from radar screens," FMSA chief Vincent Renaldo said.
In the 48 hours immediately following the disaster, safety investigators examined a wide variety of on-site evidence. The chuck wagon's original fuselage, scattered across an approximate four-tile area of linoleum in the "breakfast nook" region of the kitchen, was painstakingly reassembled by FMSA investigators in an attempt to better understand the events leading up to the crash.
The rebuilt chuck wagon's key structural elements—particularly the glue-fastened wooden dowels used as tiny spokes in the load-bearing miniature wagon wheels; the itsy-bitsy swing-axle steering rack; and the teensy-weensy whip used to make the miniature horsies accelerate in times of danger—were then subjected to a battery of stress tests in an effort to determine whether equipment failure or driver error was to blame.
While the tests are still not complete, FMSA officials say the discovery of a two-inch "bite radius" breaching the chuck wagon's hull along the right side indicates severe canine mastication, strongly supporting the dog-attack hypothesis.
"The old saw about how 'The great taste of Chuck Wagon stops dogs in their tracks' has taken on grim new overtones in light of these findings," Renaldo said.
Though Chuck Wagon Transit Authority officials insist that proper safety procedures were followed during the chuck wagon's fateful final voyage, a number of dog-food-industry whistleblowers are coming forward in the wake of the crash, insisting that such a tragedy was inevitable given the CWTA's longtime failure to address serious driver-safety issues.
"This sort of thing happens all the time," said former miniature-chuck-wagon driver Randall "Tex" West, who claims he was fired by Chuck Wagon Transit after refusing to do any more kitchen runs until the dog problem was addressed. "I can't tell you how many times a chuck wagon will tear through a kitchen, hell-bent for leather, hootin' and hollerin' to beat the devil, with a happy, hungry hound right on his tail, just inches behind."
Continued West: "A lot of these drivers consider it kind of a 'macho' thing to see how close they can cut it before zipping under the kitchen counter into the dog-food bag at the last minute, leaving the puzzled mutt wondering where all them tasty treats disappeared to. Sure, it seems kind of funny at first, the way the dog looks around and blinks, like it can't figure out where that old chuck wagon up and went all of a sudden. But when something like this happens, it's a damn shame."
Two-inch-tall wagon-driver Roy "Speedy" Sanders agreed, but noted that thrill-seeking drivers are not the only reason for the increased risk of accidents. According to Sanders, ever-increasing dog-food delivery quotas leave drivers with no choice but to speed.
"It's impossible to pull off the typical dog-food-delivery schedule and meet federal safety standards at the same time," Sanders said. "Every day, in kitchens across the U.S., drivers run their teams at full gallop through routes that traffic-control knows damn well are dog-occupied. But the traffic controllers look the other way, because, if they didn't, delivery quotas would never be met. Drivers whip their teams up to full speed and chance it, hoping either to outrun or out-maneuver the dog, figuring they can always pivot at the last minute and send the animal sliding across the linoleum if it gets too close. That way, management is happy, and they get to keep their jobs."
Though Chuck Wagon Transit authorities have cooperated with investigators, the group's official position remains that last Wednesday's crash was an isolated incident that is in no way symptomatic of a larger safety problem.
FMSA investigators, however, are not so certain.
"The kitchen in question is a well-established nap-zone for a mid-sized mutt named Scruffers, and we have solid evidence demonstrating that the driver regularly made a practice of exceeding his wagon's per-axle cargo limit by as much as 20 to 30 bite-sized chunks," FMSA special investigator Richard Sobell said. "Dogs like Scruffers can't corner as well as chuck wagons on your basic no-wax kitchen-tile surfacing; their greater mass gives them more inertia, making it harder for them to turn, especially if they're running at a full sprint."
"Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your skilled miniature-wagon-handler can pull it off," said Sobell, looking out over the crash site. "But that hundredth time? That's the one these hot-shot drivers need to start seriously thinking about."