Elderly train crash victims highlight severity of collisions in Mid-South

Elderly Germantown couple killed after train hit their car

GERMANTOWN, TN (WMC) - Tragedy struck an elderly Germantown couple at a railroad crossing just last November.

November 20, 2018 was clear skies and sunny, and Samuel and Dorothy Bell were heading home.

The 86-year-old mother and grandmother was at the wheel, and her 98-year-old husband was beside her in the passenger seat.

“One was not without the other,” said son Sammy Bell.

That afternoon, the husband and wife of more than 60 years became part of a devastating statistic.

A freight train traveling less than 50 miles an hour collided with the Bell’s white Lexus at the intersection of Forest-Hill Irene and Poplar Pike.

Dorothy died at the scene; Samuel died later at the hospital.

"We can see the Lord’s hand in it and we can see that it’s such a blessing for them to go to heaven at the same time,” said daughter Sandra Fly.

Samuel was a World War II veteran and well-known businessman. Dorothy was a former school teacher, devoted to taking care of others.

“They loved the church,” Sammy said. “They loved this country. They loved their friends.”

Some witnesses say Ms. Bell drove her SUV around the crossing gates once they were down.

Other witnesses say the SUV pulled up too far and the crossing arm was resting on the car’s windshield when the train passed through.

“I think she made that turn and that crossing guard was down, and I don’t think she ever saw that train,” Sammy said. “And she wore hearing aids, but she didn’t have them in.”

Sammy says it wasn’t unusual for his mother to drive – after his father had a heart attack, she became his caretaker.

Sammy says she usually wore sunglasses because of macular degeneration in her eyes. But on that sunny November afternoon, her sunglasses were found in her purse.

"You gotta listen for the train horn,” Solomon said. “Listen for the bells. Listen for any kind of signals that can let you know that the train's in close proximity to the crossing."

Data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows 68 percent of railroad crossing incidents happen in clear weather conditions.

According to regulation, grade crossing warning systems have to be active at least 20 seconds prior to the train’s arrival at the crossing.

As for these two siblings, they think about the good times with their mom and dad and find peace in knowing their parents are still side by side.

“Wonder what mother did when he entered heaven, you know? ‘Wonder what took you so long,’” Sandra said.

Here’s some important information for you to keep in mind if you ever have car trouble on or near the tracks. The number to the railroad dispatch operator is posted at every rail crossing across the Mid-South.

Each crossing has a 1-800 number you’ll find on these signs. If you call that number, dispatchers will do everything they can to stop a train until you can get out of harm’s way.

Federal data tracks train collisions in Mid-South

Federal data tracks train collisions in Mid-South

Data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows dozens of trains - at least 48 - collided with cars in Tennessee last year, an increase from the year before.

Every three hours, a person or vehicle is struck by a train in the United States. The moments leading up to those collisions are hard to forget.

"Usually at the point of impact they look up and they’re looking you straight in the eye,” said retired Amtrak engineer Bruce Evans.

Evans has been involved in more than a dozen incidents on the tracks - derailments, collisions and suicides.

"She was going through a divorce and it was her birthday,” Evans said.

Evans says years ago, train engineers and conductors were expected to continue working after a critical incident. Now there’s a different mentality. Crew members can ask to be relieved, take time off and request to talk to a counselor.

"Even after the counseling and everything, they never are comfortable operating that locomotive again,” said retired engineer Barry Faulkner.

Faulkner spent almost 40 years in the railroad industry and saw the impact firsthand.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, Arkansas and Mississippi are among the top 15 states with the most collisions at railroad crossings, resulting in 11 deaths in Arkansas and six in Mississippi. Another six died when trains collided with their vehicles in Tennessee.

But it’s not just drivers putting themselves in danger’s path.

“We come around these crossings and trespassers come across,” Faulkner said. “It’s a game of Russian Roulette.”

Faulkner calls them trespassers because by law that’s what they are. Railroad property is private property, so anyone walking on the tracks is considered a trespasser.

Last year in Tennessee, 12 trespassers died. FRA data shows some of the victims chose to intentionally lie down in the path of oncoming trains, others were walking on the tracks and at least two slipped or fell.

"Just like you wouldn’t walk down the middle of an interstate or you wouldn’t walk down the middle of a runway at the airport, you don’t need to walk down the railroad tracks,” said Steven Solomon, a special agent with CN Rail.

Solomon said 50 percent of collisions happen at designated railroad crossings despite crossing gates, lights and bells.

He said following those active warning signs can save your life.

"It’s motorists’ responsibility and pedestrians’ responsibility to not put themselves in harm’s way,” Solomon said.

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