Part one in a series
The locomotive is like a force of nature.
It travels with the epic strength of a tornado, hurricane or earthquake.
A storm always dissipates, a tornado turns to a rustle and earthquakes soon cease to rumble. And the natural disaster feels no sorrow for the destruction left in its wake.
But unlike those unthinking, natural forces, every train barreling through Wise County is operated by an engineer and a conductor – men and women with eyes and ears, a conscience and a soul.
We all feel for the victims who lose their lives and their friends, families, classmates and teachers when tragedies involving trains happen. But what about the unwitting participants in these deaths?
There have been four separate fatalities at train crossings in Wise County in the past year.
- On July 29, 14-year-old Cheyanne Dollins was killed when she apparently walked in front of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train north of Alvord.
- On July 8, Marcus Silletti, 14, of Alvord was killed at a crossing in town when struck from behind by a train while wearing headphones. Witnesses said he never heard it coming.
- On April 3, James A. Bland, 73, of Chico was killed when he drove his rock hauler in front of a Union Pacific train near a limestone plant north of Bridgeport.
- And on July 30, 2011, Frances Cleburn, 57, of North Richland Hills, was killed when she walked in front of a train at the intersection of Elm and O’Neil streets in Alvord.
And each time, an engineer and a conductor witnessed the tragedy.
FORCE OF NATURE
A single locomotive engine weighs half-a-million pounds when it’s empty.
The burdens of train operators can weigh heavier than those 4,000-horsepower engines.
Jeff “Smitty” Smith walks up and down the gray chunks of gravel lining the tracks running through a rock quarry in Chico.
The quarry pit behind him looks like something a meteor crashed into. Crystal blue-green water pools in the depths of the hole, reflecting a few passing clouds overhead.
Smitty has worked for Union Pacific for 10 years. As a conductor, it’s his job to take care of all the cars. He’s checking each car to make sure the brakes are functioning and set at the right pressure. It’s time-consuming and grueling on the 100-degree day, but safety is the buzz word in the industry.
“If you are on the ground anywhere at a railroad yard there is a rule for it – the only time there isn’t is if you’re in that room right there,” Smitty said earlier as he points to a bathroom.
At the moment, Smitty is preparing the train to run 30 cars loaded with rock from Chico to a cement plant near Dallas.
Up in the air conditioned cab, veteran engineer Bart Ballard communicates back and forth with Smitty. Ballard has worked for Union Pacific since 1978. As the engineer, he drives the powerful locomotive through the wilderness and crossings of Wise County.
Smitty finishes checking all the cars and loads up to join Ballard. The quarters of the cab are tight and clean. A smell of grease and sweat lingers in the air.
The pair are total opposites. Smitty is long and lean with a quick sense of humor. When the train stops he pops outside and smokes a cigarette. Puffing out smoke like an old steam engine. He spends his off hours riding crotch rockets.
Ballard, broad and gruff, carries a serious demeanor. In classic form, he wears a pair of worn blue coveralls. He likes to ride Harleys during his down time.
The metal behemoth lunges forward in seemingly slow motion because it’s so large. Hills peppered with prickly pears soon roll by the rumbling locomotive. Sunflowers growing in the gravel nod nonchalantly as the train passes.
The line runs through Bridgeport, over the West Fork of the Trinity and on through Paradise, Boyd and Newark.
“I don’t know what is it about this town but we’ve had a lot of incidents here,” Ballard said as he blows the horn near a crossing in Newark.
There’s a spot here that haunts Smitty to this day.
One night a 25-year-old lost his life when he attempted to beat the train in his car.
“I could see him coming,” Smitty said. “He was the distance of several cars when he tried to cross. He didn’t make it.”
The engineer wailed the horn and initiated it’s emergency brake, but it’s like an unstoppable force of nature. It takes almost a mile before the train comes to a complete stop.
“I walked up just in time to hear his death rattle,” Smitty said.
“After it happens, it’s like an endless movie reel in your head,” Ballard said. “It plays over and over and over.”
And like a movie, the engineer and conductor have no control over the actors on the other side of the glass. They are helpless as tragedies transpire before them.
About a mile further south, Copeland’s Crossing marks the site where a man attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head while sitting in his car near the tracks. After he shot himself, his car rolled forward just in time to get barreled into by a screeching locomotive. The engineer and conductor rushed out once the train stopped to find the man, amazingly, hanging on to life.
THE HEAVIEST BURDEN
“People in the military, first responders, they are the ones who are supposed to see this,” said Smitty, who served in the Navy. “We’re not supposed to have to deal with this stuff, but we do.”
The company gives time off to grieve. They provide counseling. But the accidents are imprinted in their minds like tracks across the landscape.
“You take it and you put in a little box and you lock it up,” Smitty said. “You don’t take it out and look at it every day. But you can’t forget it. I have to go by that crossing every day.”
A 90-car cargo train weighs 13,000 tons, or 26 million pounds. Compared to the weight on the conscience of those who’ve seen their trains take a human life, it’s an easy load to carry down the line.