I had first heard of Operation Lifesaver back during the summer of 1984.
I was about nine years old at the time, and it was my first summer in 4-H. During that summer, our health and safety leader had a speaker come in from Norfolk Southern Railroad's Operation Lifesaver program. He passed out pamphlets and showed one of Operation Lifesaver's films--Paths of Thunder. The film first showed a family heading out on vacation, getting stuck in traffic on a railroad crossing, and their station wagon (with them in it) getting hit by a train.
This was the first time that I can remember even knowing that car-train collisions even occurred. It kind of scared me as I was a little kid and had been into trains since I was two.
However, at the time I never gave any thought that something like that would happen to me or to anybody I knew.
On the morning of Monday, March 12, 1990, my brother and I were on our way to school. We were both riding the bus to school, and it seemed like a routine morning for both of us.
A few minutes after 7:00AM, our bus turned north onto McKracken Road, a short stretch of two-lane paved county road that is less than a mile long. About midway on this road and half of a mile from the high school, Conrail's former Pennsylvania mainline from Pittsburgh to Chicago crosses the road at a 90-degree angle. The part of the road at the crossing is perfectly flat. The single-track line runs straight in both directions allowing a person to see a good couple of miles in each direction. The crossing didn't have any warning signals at the time, only a pair of crossbucks and stop signs.
As the bus approached the crossing, we had a clear view of the tracks as there were no crops in the fields at the time. We stopped at the crossing, and I looked off to the west and saw Conrail's signals lit up for a westbound train to proceed through.
I immediately looked off to the east, hoping to see the westbound freight train that was coming through, but it wasn't coming out of Bucyrus yet and wasn't in sight.
The bus got to the high school. The other high school students and I got off and went inside while the junior high students stayed on for the trip back south to the Junior High building in the southern part of the district. Junior High students from the northern end of the district were also transfering from their busses to the "shuttle" busses that took them to the Junior High.
When I got to my locker, a friend of mine came up to me and asked me if I was the one who stopped the Amtrak train outside. I knew that Amtrak ran four trains through there (the eastbound and westbound Broadway Limited and the eastbound and westbound Capital Limited), but the last one to go through was supposed to have gone through at 6:00AM, and it was 7:15 then. I also wondered why Amtrak would be stopping one of their main trains in the middle of a bunch of empty cornfields anyways. I figured that he was just joking though and went to class.
During my first two classes, students from my class and others were being called down to the office one at a time. They were all involved with sports so I figured that it was just some sports related thing.
I got to my third period class, and noticed that a friend of mine, Dale Wurthmann who sat behind me in the class, wasn't there. I figured he was just sick or something as he never missed school.
I then noticed that our teacher seemed down about something. I just figured that it was because it was Monday and that she was just tired.
Our class went over our homework and the next section in the book. Afterwards, she told us that she had something to tell us.
She told us that one of our classmates wasn't going to be coming back.
I thought that somebody (probably one of her favorite students) had just moved or something.
She then said that Dale had been killed earlier that morning by an Amtrak passenger train. He had apparently been heading north on McKracken Road, and as he approached the crossing, he, like everybody else in the area, had assumed that there would never be a train at that crossing at that time of the day.
As a result, he never stopped at the crossing, never slowed down, and never even looked. He proceeded into the crossing at 50 miles per hour. The westbound Amtrak passenger train, running over an hour late, entered the crossing at 70 miles per hour.
Dale's car plowed into the front left wheels of the lead locomotive. His car was crushed and shredded. The front part of the car was twisted upside down and shoved into the passenger compartment, killing him instantly. The car then spun around and went to the southwest of the crossing and came to rest along the tracks.
I was in shock when I heard the news. At the time it was such a shock that I was unable to even comprehend that it had actually happened. The rest of that day was like a nightmare that I couldn't wake up from. Our school's principal made an announcement over the PA system about the crash, and he asked that the school have a moment of silence for Dale. Despite the fact that I was in a crowded study hall, I've never heard that school so quiet with students still in it. I didn't want to believe that it had actually happened. I didn't talk about it to anybody.
The thing I dreaded the most was the bus ride home. Our route took us through the crossing. I remember when the bus approached the crossing, everybody got silent.
The bus stopped at the crossing. Pieces of Dale's car were still lying along the tracks for about a quarter mile or so. Some pieces were so small that they could have fit into a small backpack. Our school's superintendant was parked at the crossing to make sure that all of the students stopped.
About fifteen minutes later, my brother and I got home. I wasn't going to tell my parents what happened. I felt that if I didn't talk about it, then it didn't happen.
However, my mom could tell that something was wrong when I got home. That was when I finally broke down. My dad came home from work about an hour later. He had heard about the crash at work and knew that I'd be having a hard time dealing with it.
The crash was on the front page of the paper that afternoon. It also had a picture of the car with the Amtrak passenger train stopped in the background.
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