‘I thought my life was over’
Late one night in October 2012, Mark Kalina Jr. decided to take a shortcut home through a Columbus, Ohio, rail yard. The decision cost him his legs.
“It was my first and last time walking on railroad tracks,” the 24-year-old self-described “trespass survivor” told passengers on the Great Midwest whistle-stop safety train. The train, one of four operated this summer by Norfolk Southern and Operation Lifesaver, stopped in 12 cities in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to promote public awareness about highway-rail grade crossing safety and the dangers of trespassing on rail property. Addressing government, business, and community leaders who rode the trains, presenters explained that trespassing on railroad property is not only illegal but can be deadly.
It was a message vividly illustrated by Kalina.
Wearing shorts, he stood before passengers revealing his prosthetic legs and calmly described being run over by a train. At the time a civil engineering student at Ohio State University, Kalina was returning to his apartment near campus when he cut through the rail yard. As he tried to walk around a train stopped on the tracks, he slipped on gravel, snagging his shirt on a hopper car – just as the train began to move.
Dragged alongside the train, Kalina managed to grab a ladder on the side of the hopper and climb up. He unhooked his sleeve, but then lost his balance. He fell onto the knuckle between the rail cars and then landed under the train on his stomach. He covered his head with his hands as the train passed over him.
“I looked down and, sure enough, both my legs were gone,” he said. “I thought my life was over that night.”
He spent 17 days in a hospital and then weeks in rehabilitation to learn to walk on prosthetics. Since then, he has dedicated himself to assisting others. He formed the Mark Kalina Jr. Foundation to help finance prosthetics for others who have lost limbs. Earlier this year, he became an ambassador for Operation Lifesaver, sharing his accident story with others to drive home the dangers of trespassing on railroad property.
“I didn’t know how big a problem it was until it happened to me,” he said. “I knew that you are supposed to stay away from the tracks, but I never knew it was illegal.”
His story elevates the railroad’s safety message to a new level, said William Miller, NS grade crossing safety manager. “He can tell people a real life lesson that we can’t. He really just wowed us with his attitude on life and his commitment to Operation Lifesaver and helping make sure others don’t make the same mistake.”
Trespassing on tracks and in rail yards is on the upswing, even as incidents involving vehicles and trains are declining, said Kevin Pittman, an NS special agent in Kansas City who trains law enforcement officers to investigate crossing collisions. He rode the Great Midwest train during its Illinois leg.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 476 people were killed in trespassing incidents in the United States in 2013, an 11 percent increase over 2012. An additional 432 people were injured, a 43 percent increase from 2012. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s private property,” Pittman added.
NS locomotive engineer Steve Rathke said he regularly sees people trespassing or disregarding warning signals when he makes his 250-mile run on the railroad’s Chicago line. While riding the Operation Lifesaver train from Toledo, Ohio, to Butler, Ind., Rathke noted that it takes the length of about 18 football fields for a train traveling 55 mph to stop.
NS dispatcher Dorothy Yeager, who works at Toledo East Yard, made her first trip on an Operation Lifesaver train, riding from Toledo to Butler. “It’s important to educate the public about the dangers of trespassing and going around crossing gates,” she said. A former conductor, Yeager said she has seen many people disregard crossing gates and warning signals. “They think they can beat the train.”
In addition to promoting safety around railroads, NS and Operation Lifesaver use the safety trains to build relationships and support for railway initiatives.
“Education is the key,” said Howard Gillespie, grade crossing safety manager for the Federal Railroad Administration in Kansas City, who rode the Great Midwest train. “One little mistake is the difference between life and death.”