Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal
Tuesday, March 28, 1995
DRIVERS GET 3 SECONDS TO SEE TRAIN
THERE ARE NO GATES OR ALARMS AT CROSSING WHERE THREE TEENS DIED; DECISIONS MUST BE MADE QUICKLY
BY DAVID KNOX AND BARBARA GALLOWAY
About three seconds.
That's all the warning drivers may get at the Conrail railroad crossing at Deerfield Avenue where a freight train slammed into a car carrying six Northwest High students at 3:35 p.m. Saturday. Three of the teen-agers died.
There are no gates, no red flashing lights, no clanging bell. Just a crossbuck and a yield sign. The crossing, which was the scene of another fatal crash less than two months ago, made the state's priority list for warning devices last year. But the flashing lights and gates aren't expected to be installed until summer of 1996, if that early.
Until then, it's the driver's responsibility to spot the train or hear its whistle. But on Deerfield Avenue, the boundary line between Stark and Wayne counties, that can be a tricky task because the crossing lies at the base of a heavily wooded hill.
Southbound drivers come down the steep grade -- the roadway drops 16 feet for every 100 feet traveled. They don't see a sign alerting them to the crossing until they are halfway down the slope and only about 500 feet from the tracks.
But until the driver is within 100 feet of the crossing, trees partially block the view of a train only about 200 feet down the track.
That leaves little margin for error. Trains are allowed to travel 60 mph through the crossing -- 88 feet per second -- and would cover that distance in little more than two seconds. That's how much time the driver has to stop.
Survivors of Saturday's crash, including the driver, 18-year-old Jason Moore, told Ohio Highway Patrol troopers he slowed down, looked both ways but didn't see the train until it was upon them. The train's engineer, who said he blew its whistle, confirmed the car was going slowly as it crossed the tracks.
Sgt. Robert Eastwood of the Wooster Post of the Highway Patrol, who was at the scene of the crash yesterday, said it's very possible that the driver did slow down and look for a train. But if Jason Moore first checked for an eastbound train, he might not have seen the danger on the left until it was too late.
"If he looked right and then kept rolling he'd be beyond the point of any escape," Eastwood said.
The car almost made it across. The train struck just behind the driver's side door, throwing it more than 100 feet down the tracks and onto the bank of a creek. All three who were killed were backseat passengers, including Alyson Ley, 16, of Clinton, who was the only youth wearing a seat belt.
Also killed were Jason Moore's brother, Ryan, 17, and Joshua White, 17, both of Canal Fulton.
Jason and the other two survivors, Joshua's sister, Rebecca White, 16, and Jennifer Helms, 15, of Canal Fulton, were listed in fair condition yesterday at Massillon Community Hospital.
After school yesterday, many schoolmates of the victims made pilgrimages to the railroad tracks.
Some were weeping as they drove by. Others stopped.
Three girls made a pile of stones and gravel next to the track and planted a single red rose. A card next to the flower said, "You will be missed but never forgotten."
Several groups of boys, hands in pockets, scoured the area where the accident happened. Some picked up pieces of debris -- a piece of red plastic from a tail light, a shattered brake disk -- as though looking for answers.
Most of the youths left as a cold drizzle began to fall about 4 p.m. But six boys, friends of Jason and Ryan Moore, stayed for a while longer.
It was their second trip to the site. Dale Lewis, a senior, said he and his friends drove south on Deerfield Avenue Saturday night, just hours after the accident. They drove very slowly down the steep hill "and probably stopped halfway down because we knew what happened, we knew it was dangerous."
Still, when a train approached just after they stopped, it was sudden and unexpected, he said.
"It really scared us," he said.
Jenny Dingey, a freshman at Tuslaw High, lives in a house next to the tracks. She heard the crash Saturday afternoon and, after telling her mother to call 911, ran out to see if she could help.
She said the driver of the car, Jason Moore, who has a compound fracture in his leg, was crawling from one friend to another, trying to help them.
Jenny said she was too upset to go to school yesterday, instead spending the day collecting items from the accident scene and putting them in a bag "in case the family or someone wants them." She found a boy's tennis shoe, some bottles of apple juice, a Notre Dame ball cap.
"I didn't even know the people but this really touched me; these were kids my age," she said.
Although she has a hearing impairment, she can always hear the Conrail engines when she is in a car approaching the tracks, she said.
"I hear them even before they blow the whistle," Jenny said.
She sat on a post of the guardrail over the creek to watch the procession of mourners -- and the regular motorists who barely brake as they come to the railroad crossing from either direction. Jenny and her aunt, Tammi Kunkle of Orrville, say that is typical.
"Slow down!" Kunkle screamed at the driver of a fire-engine-red Jeep as it flew over the tracks without slowing down.
In the 10 minutes after the rain began, about a dozen cars crossed the tracks. A Conrail spokesman said 14 trains go through there each day.
Judy Turckes, who has a child at Northwest and knows the Moore family, said Jason was careful -- especially when behind the wheel of his mother's car, a 1989 Eagle Premier, which he was driving Saturday.
She blamed the lack of warning devices at the crossing.
"My girlfriend lives near here and she won't let her husband drive this road," she said. "She says it's a death trap."
Principal John Hexamer said clergy from seven churches were in the school to counsel students yesterday and would be available today, when the funerals begin.
Some of the students held their own memorial service.
Laura Frey, 16, of Clinton, who visited the crossing yesterday, said about 80 students gathered in the school cafeteria at 7 a.m. yesterday for a spontaneous prayer service, led by a student, Ben Bowling.
"He brought his guitar and we all sang," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Akron Beacon Journal