Staring death in the face

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, October 14, 2011

Wednesday begins as just another day for Florida East Coast Railway engineer David Shelley. He and conductor Jim Bush leave Jacksonville, Fla., for Hialeah Yard near Miami at 1:30 p.m. with 9,160-foot train 101, pride of the fleet. On the point are two of FEC’s big SD70M-2s. In the hole they go at Micco, Fla., to meet northbound train 202, then down the coast at a steady 60 per, waving to onlookers in a rainstorm.

By early evening 101 passes West Palm Beach, entering that part of south Florida that has engineers pulling the whistle lever almost continually. Just before 8:30 p.m., around a curve at 57 mph goes 101, whistling for Southwest 18th Street in Boca Raton when . . .

“Just walked in the door and the scanner was going crazy,” fan Larry Schott hastily writes a few minutes later on a Yahoo Groups board devoted to all things FEC. “I believe 101 got a car down by the 325 mile post.”

Unfortunately, Larry is right. In the headlight of 101 is a Ford Edge. Parked. Right on the tracks. Inside, David and Jim see a woman, seemingly oblivious to her approaching doom. David blows the air, but emergency braking doesn’t even begin to slow their train in the short distance remaining. All the two men can do is incredulously stare death in the face. As David later says: “She sat right there and never moved. Worse than that is not knowing how many people are in the car or if any kids are inside. With the lights and shadows it looked like there was more than one person.”

Their train finally stopped, the two railroaders climb down from the lead locomotive and walk back, not wishing at all to see the result of this violent collision that should never have happened. “We just knew it was going to be a mess,” says David. You never get used to it, either. David says that in his 40 years at FEC, he developed a mindset that tells him at such moments that he behaved properly and did every thing possible to run a safe operation.

By the time they reach the Ford, knocked aside by their train, emergency workers are already on the scene, using power tools to remove the woman trapped inside the car. A medical-evacuation helicopter is on its way.

Amazingly, she is still alive. Not just that, but speaking to her rescuers. Later she will say she was talking on a cell phone when struck by 101. The chopper is sent back and the woman taken by ambulance to Delray Medical Center. She’ll survive, get over her injuries. But among the victims not taken to a hospital are two other people who did their jobs as they were supposed to but still found themselves manning a killing machine. That train 101 didn’t kill someone Wednesday evening is beside the point. This is the part about being a railroader that you’d as soon forget but never will. — Fred W. Frailey

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