Published August 14 2012
Death of Fargo man hit by train ruled accidental
The death of the 27-year-old Fargo man, whose body was found March 19 along the railroad tracks between Glyndon and Hawley, has been ruled accidental.
“It appears it was an unfortunate accident,” Chief Deputy Matt Siiro said.
Investigators found no evidence of foul play in the death of Nilles, who was traveling from Fargo to Chicago aboard the Empire Builder passenger train, Siiro said.
“We treated it like a criminal investigation from the start, trying to cover all the bases, and we never came across a red flag that concerned us,” he said.
The probe wrapped up last week after the sheriff’s office received the final report from Amtrak, which assisted state and local authorities with interviewing train passengers from across the country.
Investigators found no one who witnessed Nilles’ getting off the moving train. Authorities believe he opened a door and fell out, but it’s unclear which door because it apparently closed behind him, Siiro and Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said.
The train had no internal surveillance system or cameras in the passenger area, and no security buzzers or warnings if a door was opened, according to the investigative report.
“It’s one of those things where you can investigate it and investigate it, but you’re still never going to get an answer why, which I think is hard for the family,” Bergquist said.
According to the report, a train passenger told authorities Nilles had been drinking in the lounge area and “was extremely intoxicated.” He said he didn’t see Nilles after they were asked to leave the lounge, which was closed.
An autopsy measured Nilles’ blood-alcohol concentration at about 0.37 percent. Nilles’ father, who declined to comment for this story, told authorities his son had left court-ordered treatment for alcohol abuse about a week earlier and was planning on moving back to Chicago, the report says.
Based on evidence and witness statements, it appeared that at some point Nilles tried to smoke a cigarette on the eastbound train, Detective Jason Hicks wrote in his report. An unlit cigarette and a lighter were found at the point of impact where a westbound BNSF train hit Nilles’ body after he apparently fell out of the Amtrak train just before a trestle bridge, the report says.
An Amtrak investigator said it was possible that if someone wanted to have a cigarette, they could open a side door of the train and stand there and smoke. He said it also would be possible for that person to fall out the side of the train, which shifts back and forth quite a bit while moving, and have the door close behind them.
The Empire Builder was going between 59 mph and 75 mph as it traveled between Glyndon and Hawley between 4:45 and 4:50 a.m., the report says.
The BNSF train was equipped with a video recorder, but it is common practice for trains approaching each other to turn off their lights, so nothing was seen on video when Nilles is believed to have died, the report says.
Nilles’ body was found along the tracks near the Buffalo River State Park entrance at about 7 a.m.
Lt. Steve Landsem said the sheriff’s office will reopen the case if new evidence comes to light, but he added, “I think we’ve exhausted almost everything we can do.”
“We may never know exactly what happened,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528