January 13, 2014

Road Worrier: NC railroad deaths are not always accidents

Suicide was suspected in up to half of the state’s 27 train-related deaths last year, and video evidence shows that a man in Durham was walking down the tracks – toward the approaching train – when he died Sunday.

A southbound Amtrak train struck a man walking on the tracks Sunday afternoon in Durham, then ran over a second man’s body in Greensboro – but investigators don’t know whether either death will be ruled accidental.

Train-related deaths spiked in North Carolina last year, and rail-safety experts say that as many as half involved something they don’t like to talk about: suicide.

“We see them walk to the tracks and jump in front of the train,” Paul Worley, the state Department of Transportation Rail Division director, said Monday. “We see them kneel and turn their backs, or look toward us. We see them run toward us. I hate to say that, but that’s what we see. There are so many suicides on the tracks.”

That’s what investigators suspect in Durham. They say the Amtrak Piedmont engineer sounded his horn a few times about 12:25 p.m. Sunday in a vain effort to warn the man who turned and walked relentlessly toward the approaching locomotive.

Homicide is a possibility in Greensboro, where Amtrak reported that the same train hit “a previously deceased body” at 4:25 p.m. That’s about an hour after the train left Durham with a replacement engineer at the controls.

DOT officials confirmed Monday that a northbound Amtrak train had struck the body a few hours earlier Sunday, on the same track. But railroad and police investigators don’t know how the Greensboro man died. Among the possibilities considered by authorities: He had been struck even earlier by a freight train, or he had been killed by someone who dumped his body there.

“They’ll need an autopsy to determine whether he died of natural causes, or passed out on the tracks, or was criminally dispatched and left on the tracks,” said Drew Thomas, the Rail Division data analysis manager. “They’re not sure of the circumstances. It’s a mystery right now.”

In Greensboro, police identified the dead man as Ricardo Aleman, 36. The Durham victim’s name was not released.

Seven people were killed in cars last year at North Carolina train crossings, but most rail deaths involved people the railroads call “trespassers.” Twenty people were on the tracks illegally – most of them lying, walking or standing – when they were struck and killed by trains in 2013.

Suicidal intent

Authorities formally ruled suicide in four of the 20 trespasser deaths, including two people in Charlotte who had lain down together in front of a CSX freight train on March 17, and a person who left a note before walking in front of a train near Mebane on Nov. 17.

And there was evidence of suicidal intent in at least four more trespasser cases last year. In Burlington on July 20, a person sprinted down the tracks to meet the oncoming train; in Durham on Dec. 10, a man dressed in black parked his car near the tracks and knelt in front of the train. And one of the seven car deaths in 2013 involved a woman who waited at a crossing in Raleigh on Feb. 6 until the Amtrak Carolinian approached, then drove into its path.

“When somebody is determined to off themselves by train, there’s not an awful lot you can do,” said Robin Chapman, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern Railroad. “We do try to get the word out about being safe around tracks, making the public aware that being on the tracks is illegal and dangerous.”

Train-death investigations involve local police, railroads, state and sometimes federal rail agencies, and they can take months. But in many cases, within hours of a crash, investigators share what can prove to be decisive evidence: the crash films recorded by locomotive video cameras.

But even with video evidence, investigators frequently are unable to determine why someone drives, walks or stands in front of a train. Sometimes people use the tracks as shortcuts. Two deaths in 2013 involved people walking on the tracks who apparently did not hear the train horn because they were listening to music on their earphones.

‘It’s some world’

And sometimes people use a train to cover up a crime.

“We have had cases in the past where people have put dead bodies on the tracks,” Worley said. “Some foul play has happened and they were looking for the train to make it look like something else. It’s some world.”

State and federal agencies, railroads and nonprofit safety organizations run frequent campaigns to warn drivers and pedestrians about danger on the tracks. But they don’t know what to say about suicide.

“We don’t publicize it, because we don’t want copycats. People see it as a brutal way to go and a way to attract attention,” Worley said. “How do we talk about these things without encouraging more copycats?”

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