By Tom La Combe
It’s early September, the weather is perfect, students are still buzzing around in communities on the back-to-school high, and it’s football season. On this particularly memorable day, I was working what I thought would be a typical trip. I am a locomotive engineer, so “typical” is sort of relative.
This day is not particularly memorable because of the perfect weather and favorable fall conditions. It’s because I was forced to be part of someone’s death, watching it happen, powerless to stop it. You don’t go to work thinking you’re going to kill someone today…
When it happened I was in shock. That’s strange for me because I’m generally pretty pragmatic/stoic, whatever the right word is. But even the most grounded and practical people can never be prepared for being forced to participate in someone else’s death.
The details of exactly what happened are not something that I talk about, except to other railroaders. They understand it, because a good number of them have been through it. I did tell my wife, though. A surprisingly hard call to make, I wasn’t sure what I would say until she answered the phone. “Well, it happened … (a long pause) I killed someone today.”
The words still ring in my ears - like someone else saying it while I sit as a casual observer. It’s strange - at the time I was so numb when I made the call. The hours and days afterward were anything but numb.
For two days I couldn’t sleep or eat. Besides having to be present for the actual experience, my body’s reaction to it was also deeply troubling. A trespasser ran in front of my train, there was no way I could have stopped in time, and the inevitable consequence happened. Why is that so difficult? It is against the law to be on railroad property, it is private property.
It’s so complicated. That fatality was out of my control! As tragic as that is for the victim, the victim is not the only one involved. The witnesses (locomotive engineer, conductor, and others), emergency responders, law enforcement, coroner, family, and friends - also out of their control!
Close your eyes for a few seconds and picture yourself in the cab of a train, watching a nightmare develop for an excruciating eternity, which is in reality maybe less than 10 seconds. Then, marinate on this reality: I am the last living person this guy is going to see - ever. I can’t even describe the look in a person’s eyes (and yes - we do get close enough to see that look) when the reality of death hits. I will tell you that’s something that will creep a person out until their last day on earth.
In fact, someone still chases me around in my dreams because of what I think I caused. But there’s the rub. I didn’t cause it. Not driving around gates and not trespassing are decisions I can’t make for someone else. Nor for the countless “close calls” that have happened since. And every one of those takes me right back to the first fatality.
When that happens; some crew members never get back on a train, their career is over. Some cope; some get out and talk about it. I am in the latter class. I volunteer with my railroad’s peer support and I volunteer with Kansas Operation Lifesaver, a not-for-profit program. In my career I will have spoken to more than 35,000 people about railroad safety.
If what I say can sink in to even just one person, it is all worth it. But I hope it’s more than a thousand. You can help, so I never have to make that call again. Stay off railroad property and never try to beat a train. See Tracks? Think Train!
Tom La Combe is a Locomotive Engineer with the Union Pacific Railroad and a Kansas Operation Lifesaver volunteer