Tragedy: the view from the tracks

A train engineer recalls the terrors he has seen and couldn't stop.

Published July 22, 2007

Silver Star No. 91 screamed as it hurtled the tracks from Jacksonville to Tampa one day last fall. One and a half thousand tons of smooth, silver metal moving at freeway velocity, 79 miles per hour, 6,952 feet per minute, a football field every 21/2 seconds. The shrubs that lined the rail bed shivered as it tore past.

Inside the locomotive, engineer Billy Parker worked the controls. He wore pressed slacks and a Polo shirt.

Less than a quarter mile from the N 62nd Street crossing at CSX Intermodal in east Tampa, Parker pressed the button that blows the horn. It was an ordinary act, on an ordinary stretch of track. Two long blasts, a short one and another long.

Then he saw it, straddling the tracks, a semitrailer truck. He threw his hand on the emergency brake lever, radioed a warning to his conductor and dove into a corner, arms wrapped around his head.

No. 91 charged forward.

That was November. No. 91 made tragic headlines again Monday when it hit a car west of Lakeland, killing four people inside, none of them older than 22. The driver had tried to beat the train to the crossing. The next day, a different train on the same route, headed the opposite way, hit a Mack truck. The driver was killed and the train derailed.

Parker was not involved in either of those accidents. He no longer drives trains. But he has worked with both engineers in this month's collisions. If anyone can understand their terror and pain, it is Billy Parker.

You must know the horrible thing Parker knows: If you drive trains, you kill people.

"It's not a question of if," he says, "but of when."

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Parker, like all passenger train engineers, makes a good living. He has a wife, Trish, and two daughters from a previous marriage. They live in Fernandina Beach, near Jacksonville.

Parker, 56, got his first railroad job in 1974, maintaining freight locomotives for the Seaboard Coast Line in Savannah, Ga. By 1986, he was driving Amtrak passenger trains in Florida.

In 1991, a calamity of freak timing sent a red Mustang rocketing onto a crossing at precisely the same moment as Parker's train. Braking was useless. The car was shredded, the driver killed, and Parker's name joined the long list of engineers involved in fatal train accidents.

One Sunday afternoon the next year, as he was running north out of West Palm Beach, Parker spotted two fishermen sitting on a small trestle. As he blew the horn, the young men jumped to their feet and started running toward the opposite end of the bridge.

One stopped. He turned back. He faced the oncoming train.

Parker mashed the emergency brake and air rushed from the brake chambers. But the train, all 3-million pounds, plowed ahead, screeching and grinding.

When it stopped, a half a mile away, Parker walked back to the trestle. He found the fisherman's body twisted around a telephone pole. He came upon the other fisherman, weeping, and nearby, a 5-gallon bucket. Inside it, Parker found a single fish.

Next time, Parker decided, he would stay in the cab.

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For Parker, 1993 was a disaster. In January, his father died of emphysema. Ten months later, his mother would be dead, too, of lung cancer. And in between, on March 18, there was Fort Lauderdale.

It was 3 p.m. and Parker, on his way from New York to Miami, neared the station in Fort Lauderdale. As the train approached the crossing at Cypress Creek Road, a Hess gasoline tanker edged onto the tracks, then got stuck behind traffic. A warning gate dropped onto the truck, lights flashed and bells rang.

A fireball shot 150 feet into the air, killing six car passengers. None of the 121 train passengers was hurt.

When Parker crawled from the engine, the flames singed his hair. To the best of his knowledge, he is one of only two train engineers to survive a collision with a gas tanker.

But nightmares rocked his mind. His marriage fell apart. He told an Associated Press reporter he had "lost his personality."

He quit. He found a new job, a new purpose, a mission. He became an evangelist for safety. He was hired by a national railroad safety organization called Operation Lifesaver and traveled the East Coast preaching his gospel - that train collisions are avoidable.

It helped Parker cope with his nightmares. "If I can save one life, then it makes it all worth it."

Over 10 years, the number of fatalities from U.S. train collisions fell by half. The decline was attributed to a combination of factors, including the installation of more safety gates and flashing lights at crossings, a decrease in drunken driving, and increased public education including Operation Lifesaver.

In 2003, Parker's job was eliminated.

He returned to the work he knew best.

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Years passed peacefully. Then on a Sunday last November, he narrowly missed two pedestrians -- and a fuel tanker by 2 feet. His wife, Trish, worried about him. She decided she would surprise him by meeting him in Tampa on his next run.

That Wednesday, Nov. 8, Henry James Montgomery Jr.'s semitrailer truck was stopped on the tracks at the N 62nd Street crossing in east Tampa. The train arrived with such force that the truck shattered.

Montgomery was killed. The truck's fuel tank burst, igniting a fire beneath the train engine and filling Parker's cab with smoke. Parker scrambled to his feet, groping the wall, stumbling in darkness to the door.

He called Trish from the scene, thinking she was in Jacksonville. No, she was Tampa. Ten minutes later, she was at his side.

They went home together. He didn't get back in an engine. For three months, he drove by car from one railroad crossing to another, filing reports to Amtrak when he saw people race the trains.

In April, Amtrak found a dream job for him. Naming him senior analyst for operating practices was a roundabout way of allowing Parker to do what he had always craved: teach people to be safe. He now trains every Amtrak employee in the Southeast region.

In the classroom, Parker savors a feeling of control.

Hurtling along those train tracks, gazing down each unknown stretch, Parker had no feeling of control.

No engineer does.

Pat Walters is a graduate student at the University of Memphis. He is on a fellowship at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg.