My Operation Lifesaver Page

      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.

[Top half of article]
[Bottom half of article]
The article on Dale's accident.

      The following days were especially hard. In the one class that I had been in with Dale, our teacher was passing back homework and came across Dale's.

      Most of the school was at the funeral that Thursday. A lot of people were shocked that it was an open-casket funeral. The body we saw didn't resemble Dale at all. The burial was even rougher, at least for me. As we were gathered there at the cemetary, a Norfolk Southern freight train went through town, its horn bringing back memories of that tragic Monday.

      For about a month afterwards, I was mad at the engineer of the train that Dale had hit. I even considered giving up my love of trains as I thought that trains had killed a friend of mine. After a while, I got over my feelings as I realized that it was really Dale's fault for his death. The engineer had said that he knew that Dale wasn't going to stop and put the train into emergency braking and held down on the horn. It was all he could do. I also gradually went back to my love of trains.

      As the days and weeks went on, things gradually got back to normal.

      However, one thing still remained the same. Students were still running the stop signs at the McKracken Road railroad crossing. The Crawford County Sheriff's Department was catching people running the stop signs by posting a deputy at each end of the one-mile road and a third at the crossing to spot violators. Everytime the Sheriff's Department was running the operation, they were catching people, mostly students, running the crossing.

      It was then that I decided that something needed to be done before another student and good friend was needlessly lost.

      I approached our principal about a year after the accident with the idea that the school start an Operation Lifesaver program similar to our SADD program.

      Our principal said that it was a good idea but it was too close to the accident. He was afraid that students would get upset over seeing a car get hit by a train.

      I was confused over his answer since that previous December our school had watched Back to the Future: Part 3 just before Christmas break in the auditorium. At the end, the time car got smashed to bits by a train, and nobody got upset.

      I let the idea go that year as I didn't want to argue with the principal. That fall (my senior year), we got a new principal, and I approached him with the idea of the Operation Lifesaver program.

      He turned me down as well. He said that the program was aimed more at little kids and was a waste of time.

      I graduated in May of 1992 and that fall began classes at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. At the time, I was too busy to even try to organize any kind of Operation Lifesaver program.

      All of that finally changed in the fall of 1993. I approached the advisor of the health and safety programs for on campus with the idea of the program.

      She loved it! She thought it was a great idea since CSX went through town right on the north edge of campus.

      I then contacted Operation Lifesaver and Ohio's state Operation Lifesaver Coordinator Donald Slemmer, who sent me pamphlets and videos. I then made a couple of posters of newpaper and magazine articles on crossing accidents. We then set up the presentation in the college's Campus Center during the lunch hours one week in October.

      The response was incredible. Students and faculty were stopping at the display, reading/picking up pamphlets, watching the videos, and reading the posters. A lot of people were asking about Operation Lifesaver and how I got involved. Many students thought the whole thing was a kind of joke until they found out about what I'd gone through over three years earlier. They then took it very seriously.

[Display table]
This is a picture of one of the displays Heidelberg
Operation Lifesaver did during my sophomore year.

[Display posters]
This is a picture of the two posters I made of newspaper
and magazine articles that I've accumulated. Dale's
accident and obituary are in the top left.

[Display table]
Another view of the display table.

      While I've since graduated from Heidelberg and am no longer doing the presentations, I will always continue to support Operation Lifesaver.

Dale's gravestone       Even though it's been over twenty years since the accident, I've never been able to fully get over the nightmare that I went through. I can't forget the sight of Dale's car on the front page of the newspaper or the sight of the pieces of his car strewn alongside the track. I still have occasional nightmares where I'm actually seeing the crash over and over.

      I went through driver's ed the summer and fall after the crash, and even though I knew I had to get my driver's license sooner or later, I kept putting it off. I was literally afraid to get behind the wheel of a car.

      While I've gotten over my fear of driving, I'm still scared every time I come up to a railroad crossing. Occasionally, the image of Dale's smashed car will flash into my mind as I approach a crossing. I always have to stop at crossings, not just for safety reasons but because I just have to. I used to leave my radio on while approaching crossings since I was always cautious. However, one day as I was stopping, I didn't hear a train until it was right at the crossing. Even though I would have seen it and been stopped, the incident really scared me. I now turn off my radio at crossings.

      People usually think that I got involved with Operation Lifesaver because of my love of trains. But that's not the real reason. The real reason is that I don't want to see anybody go through what I went through. It's something you can never get over.

      Sadly, the tragedy I went through was repeated for my brother in April 2000 when a friend of his drove in front of a freight train without slowing down. What hasn't been determined was if he was trying to beat the train or if he simply wasn't paying attention and didn't see it.

      Please remember to approach crossings expecting a train to be approaching, and always remember to look, listen, and live! Your friends, your family, train crews, law enforcement officials, and everybody else will be grateful.
[Operation Lifesaver link]

Kevin L. Wagner

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