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Kim Bell, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Published June 24 2012

Train deaths haunt railroad workers

ST. LOUIS — The memory is still horrifying for former train engineer J.D. “Buzz” Stone, 25 years after a Burlington Northern freight train run through Missouri’s Ozarks.

As the 4,000-ton train of 64 cars topped a hill on a misty morning just before 4 a.m. in Lawrence County, Mo., he saw something ahead that would change him.

At first he could only make out two circle shapes, but as he and the head brakeman quickly tried to figure out what it could be, the circles became the metal rims of a bicycle one the tracks.

He blasted the horn and pulled the lever to apply the brakes, but a train that heavy could take a mile or more to stop. The train didn’t have that kind of room as it approached what turned out to be a man lying on the tracks near a bike.

“As soon as we hit it, I knew,” Stone, 68, recalled. “I knew what was going on. I felt the vibration of his body going under the train.

“I will never forget it,” says the ex-Marine from Springfield, Mo., who spent 36 years working on the railroad. He never learned why the 19-year-old man with the bike was lying on the tracks.

Such clashes between trains and people aren’t rare. The Federal Railroad Administration says an average of 500 people die every year while trespassing on railroad tracks.

In Missouri over the past month, three teens were struck and killed by Amtrak trains — a boy in Kirkwood who was walking along a rail line while wearing headphones and two girls in Poplar Bluff who, the coroner says, parked their Jeep on the tracks to scare themselves with ghost stories about a long-ago train wreck.

News coverage following such fatalities usually focuses on the people killed, the loss to families and communities. But Stone, who has helped counsel many colleagues involved in train fatalities, points out that there is also an entire train crew that goes through its own pain.

“This is baggage these crews will carry for the rest of their lives,” Stone says. “I’ve seen guys and gals turn to alcohol and drugs, have psychological problems. I’ve seen marriages in jeopardy after these fatal incidents. I’ve had some people quit.”

Stone, who retired eight years ago but still does railroad safety outreach work with the public through Operation Lifesaver, said he attributes a friend’s early death to a particularly traumatic incident.

The friend, Donald Tate, was the engineer on a 31-car freight train in September 1988 when it came upon two toddlers who had wandered from their homes and were playing on the tracks near Iron Hill Road a few miles east of St. Clair, Mo.

Tate blew his whistle and tried to stop, to no avail. The train struck and killed a boy and a girl, both 2 years old. Their deaths hurt Tate deeply.

“It destroyed him,” said Rick Mooney, state coordinator for Missouri Operation Lifesaver.

Stone still listens to a recording of his friend’s panic-stricken dispatch call reporting the incident to the railroad. He’s played it hundreds of times for law enforcement classes so they can understand the anguish train crews go through.

Part of the trauma comes from factors specific to railroads. Engineers might see a problem developing far in advance, but a train can’t swerve out of the way or stop in a hurry. Depending on the speed, conditions and what the train is hauling, it could take anywhere from half a mile to 11/2 miles for a train the size of Stone’s to stop.

“It’s horribly traumatic, and there is little or nothing they are able to do to avoid it,” said Frank Wilner, a spokesman for the United Transportation Union, which represents 50,000 railroad workers nationwide.

Then investigators pore over what was done. They examine the “black box” event recorder to look at train speed and operation. They study any surveillance camera footage. Claims agents and supervisors examine the train crew’s actions.

Those who don’t leave the job usually return to the same route, meaning they pass a traumatic location over and over again. Wilner said changing routes or moving an assignment would likely require a change of residence, and that’s not practical.

It’s a process that Stone experience through time and time again during his career. Fifteen times, freight trains with Stone in charge have killed or injured someone. Thirteen times he hit vehicles, twice pedestrians. Six people died.

Stone acknowledges that’s a lot.

“Hell, I thought I was jinxed,” he said. “But I know guys who’ve hit more. I know a couple guys who went a whole career and never scratched paint on a fender, lucky devils. But if you go 20 years or more on this job, chances are you are going to watch somebody die.”

But the man with the bike is the one Stone remembers most.

The day after he hit the man, a newspaper carried the story on its front page with Stone’s name in it. Stone’s home phone rang nearly nonstop. Most were calls of concern from his family and co-workers, but some calls were from “weirdoes calling me a killer,” Stone says.

Stone also got a call from the teen’s mother within days of the incident.

“That was one of the hardest things, to talk to her,” he said. “She didn’t blame me. She wanted to know what I saw. I tried to console her as much as I could.”

The train company in those days would tell an engineer it wasn’t his fault and to go about his business. They didn’t give time off, Stone said. He dealt with it largely on his own, going through various emotions before accepting he wasn’t at fault in the death.

He says he went to the medical department of the Burlington Northern rail company and urged them to start a peer support program, which it did. Later, Stone was one of the men who would call engineers involved in fatal crashes.

Now it’s standard practice among railroad companies to offer a form of grief and stress counseling, along with some paid time off, according to Wilner, with the railworkers union. That’s what engineers and conductors involved in the recent Missouri incidents were offered, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

Harry E. Stewart provides such help for Union Pacific workers. After a 31-year career as an engineer with Union Pacific, he now coordinates the company’s peer support program.

Stewart, from Tyler, Texas, said he gets notified within minutes of a crash. Once the crew members have had a chance “to go home and settle down and get some rest, support members will call them,” Stewart said.

Most of support team members are current employees who have witnessed at least one fatal train crash. Stewart said he had been involved in eight to 10 train crashes, which he says is about average for someone working three decades as an engineer.

Often, they’ll have long conversations with crews involved in a crash. They’re good listeners, Stewart said, but not counselors. They’re trained to know when the worker needs professional counseling.

“The conversations allow you to unload some of that traumatic baggage you carry on your shoulders,” Stewart said.

But even those who help others still have to deal with their own memories.

Stone said he still has nightmares and will wake in a cold sweat. He wrecks trains a lot in those dreams. And he sees the bicyclist, too.

“These incidents have changed my life forever,” Stone said. “The bravado, the rough-tough Buzz, are a thing of the past.”