Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal
Sunday, April 2, 1995
CROSSING HAUNTED BY PAST
AT LEAST 5 OTHERS DEAD IN DEERFIELD AVE. CRASHES
BY DAVID KNOX
Four people killed so far this year at the railroad crossing at Deerfield Avenue on the Stark-Wayne county line weren't the first to lose their lives there.
At least five others have died in collisions with trains at the crossing, which lies at the bottom of a steep, wooded hill and has neither flashing lights nor gates.
The worst occurred July 12, 1975, when two women were killed and a man died a few days later from injuries after their car was struck by a freight under circumstances remarkably similar to those in a crash nine days ago that killed three Northwest High students and seriously injured three others. Little more than two months before, a Nimishillen man died and an Akron man was seriously injured in a crash at the crossing.
State officials responsible for determining which crossings qualify for improved warning devices weren't aware of the earlier crashes at Deerfield Avenue, which did not make the list for lights and gates until December and may not get them until 1996. They didn't know because the computerized records maintained by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio don't go back that far.
"I know we probably don't have anything here going back 20 years," said Mark Ross, chief of the PUCO's Railroad Division.
Even if they did, Ross said they wouldn't have made a difference because the federal formula used by the PUCO to compile the annual list of the most dangerous crossings includes only a five-year history of crashes.
"Their rationale was that five years would be enough time," Ross said. "Situations and circumstances change over time."
But for Lee R. Hammock of Lawrence Township, the only survivor of the 1975 crash, that sunny July afternoon seems like yesterday.
"I heard the whistle and jerked my arms up and it just hit," said Hammock, now 58, whose wife, Judith, was killed in the crash.
Hammock was in the front passenger seat of a late-model Cadillac Coupe DeVille driven by his longtime friend, Theodore Mika, 55, a local country-western band leader who sang under the name Ted Newton. Judith Hammock, 36, and Mika's wife, Marion, 46, were in the back seat.
The four were on their way to Columbus to perform at the wedding of a disc jockey. The members of Mika's band, Keepin Ut Kountry, were in a van behind the Cadillac as it came down the hill north of the crossing.
``Ted looked to the left and he couldn't see anything -- the grass was real high on the west side," Hammock remembers. "He looked to the right and he slowed down almost to a dead stop. Then, as he started to ease forward, the whistle blew. In his panic, his foot hit the throttle."
The three teen-agers who survived last week's crash, including 18-year-old driver Jason Moore, told authorities they also had slowed down and looked both ways but didn't see the train until it was upon them. A decision by the Wayne County Municipal Court prosecutor on possible charges against Moore is awaiting completion of the Ohio State Patrol's report on the crash.
The youths' car almost made it across the tracks when the westbound freight hit the left rear-quarter of their 1990 Eagle Premier at about 3:35 p.m. March 25.
Hammock said his crash happened at 3:15 p.m. -- also on a Saturday.
The Cadillac also almost nearly made it across.
"The train struck right in front of the back wheel," Hammock said. "It tore the back fenders and the trunk off."
The car ended up about 80 feet down the track. The two women in the back seat were fatally thrown from the car. Mika died six days later.
Hammock, who sustained three cracked ribs, a dislocated shoulder and a broken cheek and nose, crawled from the wreckage and found his wife on the creek bank.
"Every bone in her body was broken," he said. "She was like a bag of ice."
The train crew reported the freight was traveling 40 mph -- about 20 mph slower than the Conrail freight that struck the Northwest students' car. The speed limit on the track is 60 mph.
Hammock, an Akron native who lives less than three miles from the crossing, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit six months after the accident against Mika's estate and the Penn Central Transportation Co. He received $2,500 in an out-of-court settlement with the railroad, which was in bankruptcy at the time, and was awarded a $9,352 judgment from Mika's estate.
Hammock also tried to start a campaign to get flashing lights at the crossing.
"I talked to police agencies after my wife's funeral," he said. "I was raising all kinds of hell about it."
His determination was fueled about a month later after three teen-agers were injured when they hit a train at the same crossing in heavy fog at night.
"That wouldn't have happened if there were flashers there," Hammock said. "There's a creek down there by the tracks that causes fog."
North Lawrence Fire Chief Bill Baker remembers at least one other fatal accident -- a semi-tractor trailer hit by a train, at the crossing in the 1970s. Details of that crash and any other incidents before 1988 were not immediately available because the records kept by the Ohio Department of Highway Safety are on microfilm.
Baker didn't need records to remember another fatal crash, in 1968. The victim was a North Lawrence volunteer firefighter, Norman E. Powell.
Baker said he considered Deerfield Avenue the most dangerous of the seven Conrail crossings in his fire district because "it's had the most fatalities and accidents."
Despite that history, Hammock's private campaign to get improved warning devices went nowhere.
"The answer I got was that ODOT (the Ohio Department of Transportation) had done a study that said there wasn't enough traffic there to warrant lights," he said.
Until about five years ago, ODOT was the state agency responsible for deciding where to put electronic warning devices at crossings.
When the PUCO was given the job, the agency adopted a new formula, devised by the Federal Railroad Administration, to determine which crossings should get improved warning devices.
While the federal formula gives more weight to crashes than the old system used by ODOT, Ross said many other factors also are included.
Ross stressed that the other factors -- including the number of vehicles and trains traveling over a crossing each day, the speed of the trains, the number of tracks and the type of warning devices already installed -- can be more important than the number of crashes in determining the most dangerous crossings.
"We put all these numbers into a computer," he said.
Ross said he considered the federal formula a good tool to ferret out the most dangerous crossings.
"I think we've been doing a good job of finding those locations," he said.
Asked whether the formula gave consideration to poor visibility caused by hilly terrain or trees -- such as those at the Deerfield crossing -- Ross said, "At the present time, no."
Drivers coming down the 16-percent-grade hill don't have an unobstructed view up the tracks until they are within 100 feet of the crossing. The northbound approach, which has a 55 mph speed limit, also is lined with trees.
"The problem is they haven't come up with a really effective way to quantify that," he said. Ross said the logic behind using data only from the past five years is "it's very possible traffic conditions could have changed" over a longer period.
But Ross acknowledged that one fairly recent crash at the Deerfield crossing can't be found in the PUCO's files.
According to Ohio Department of Public Safety records, a northbound midsized car struck a westbound train at the crossing at about 1 p.m. on a rainy Nov. 22, 1992. No injuries were reported.
Ross said he didn't know why the crash wasn't included in a "diagnostic study" of the Deerfield crossing done in November 1994. A similar collision that occurred in April 1988 was included.
Crash statistics are supplied by the Federal Railroad Administration, based on mandatory reports filed by the railroad, he said.
A Conrail spokesman said crash reports are submitted monthly to the Railroad Administration but the railroad does not keep a history of each crossing.
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