SAN FRANCISCO — S. Brian Willson is going to Washington on new legs.
In his first major venture into the public arena since he was maimed by a munitions train 2 1/2 months ago, the anti-war activist--supported by a $4,500 pair of artificial limbs--is scheduled to appear today at House subcommittee hearings into the Sept. 1 incident at Concord Naval Weapons Station.
Protesters have maintained a 24-hour vigil outside the weapons station's gates since Willson was struck by the train and dragged 25 feet while sitting on the tracks to protest Reagan Administration policy in Central America. Far from waning in the following weeks, the protest appears to have grown.
David Wylie, one of the protest's coordinators, said demonstrators are digging in for an "indefinite" siege. Supporters have bought a house in nearby Pittsburg to serve as an operations base and dormitory, he said, and sympathizers continue to send unsolicited money at the rate of $5,000 to $10,000 a month.
On Monday morning, more than 30 demonstrators--ranging from college-age youths to retirees--carried placards and stood chatting along the railroad tracks that cross a public road bisecting the Navy base 40 miles east of here. Although thousands of protesters--including Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson--turned out for weekend demonstrations in September, on weekdays the protesters often numbered no more than half a dozen.
In an interview before he left for Washington, Willson said he is hoping that the one-day hearing by the House Armed Services subcommittee on investigations will not mark the end of official inquiries into the chain of events that left him crippled. "I want the committee to find out why the train ran over a U.S. citizen," he said.
Last week, two top officers at the weapons station were disciplined over the Sept. 1 incident, in which Willson's legs were severed below the knees and his skull fractured. A spokesman for subcommittee chairman Rep. William Nichols (D.-Ala.) said the Navy's three-inch-thick report on the episode probably will be made public at the hearing.
While in Washington, Willson said, he also will join former CIA agents and others at a press conference announcing formation of a center to investigate covert operations conducted by the United States.
The 46-year-old Vietnam veteran, who frequently refers to himself as a "peace warrior," and other demonstrators were trying to stop a train they believed was loaded with ordnance bound for the Nicaraguan Contras.
By demonstrators' accounts, their relations with the Concord naval base have become strained in the months since Willson was injured.
In the immediate aftermath of the maiming, base officials supplied a large tent, other amenities and conferred frequently with protesters to minimize the risk of further injuries. Now, the tent is gone and official attitudes are much less cordial, Wylie said.
Wylie was one of two men who suffered broken bones last week as they were forcibly removed from the tracks by Contra Costa County, Willson appears to have made a dramatic recovery.
sheriff's deputies to make way for a munitions train. "There have been increasing levels of harassment," he charged, saying his right arm was broken just below the elbow and his companion's wrist was fractured.
Protesters' cars frequently are ticketed for parking violations by deputies, parking has been restricted and demonstrators were required to remove a portable toilet, he maintained.
Willson, a cheerful man who claims to have suffered no depression because of his injuries, appears to have recuperated dramatically. He is able to walk unassisted--almost spryly--around the town house apartment he shares with his wife and stepson, Holly and Gabriel Rauen.
"When I go outside, I use canes because my balance isn't great--skateboarders coming at me, it's hard to get out of their way quickly . . .," he said.
Willson also noted somewhat ruefully that with his artificial legs he now stands 5-foot--10 1/2. Before he was injured he was four inches taller at 6-foot-2 1/2, he explained. But, he added, "It's an advantage now to have shorter legs for a lower center of gravity while I'm learning to walk."
Willson said he never will regain his former height but eventually his artificial legs may be "built up" so that he will measure a little over six feet.
Since he was released from the hospital Sept. 29, Willson said he has been kept busy with a steady flow of interview requests, organizing and political meetings and physical therapy, as well as thousands of letters from here and abroad. There also are plans for a book and he has been discussing a movie with two producers.
Calls From Ortega
During his convalescence, one well-wisher has been Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who he met on one of his trips to that country, Willson said. "He's called several times over the course of my recovery just to see how I'm doing--'How's your legs, how's your head, really just kind of a health check," Willson said.
Although he likes being busy, Willson said he sometimes wishes he had more time for contemplation.
"I'm still sorting through or coming to grips with what all this really means for my life," he said. "I'm on a journey and the general direction is clear. The basic ingredients of nonviolence and interfacing with people all over the country and the world--I'm becoming very active with that.
"But specifically what it's all going to mean for me I don't know. . . . What happened on Sept. 1 created a whole new person. Almost literally, I was resurrected from the dead. So I have a new life to offer and share with the world."