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Death of Firefighter Devastates Community as Debate over Lack of Signals Begins

(St. George, South Carolina – January 7, 2013)

The tragic death Sunday afternoon of a young husband, father, and public servant who was killed instantly when his Chevrolet pickup truck collided with a Norfolk Southern freight train traveling at 44 mph at the dangerous, unguarded crossing of NS railroad tracks and Ann Street in St. George, SC was being felt Monday across three communities.

Richard Willis, 27, a U.S. Army veteran who lived in St. George with his wife, son and two daughters, had started volunteering with the 11-member Grover, SC Fire Dept. five years ago where “He was really dedicated and went above and beyond what he really had to,” recalled Grover Fire Chief Wesley Infinger.

While simultaneously working for the GFD and serving as an emergency medical technician with “STAT” Ambulance Service, Willis’ zeal for public service had led him to the Santee, SC Fire Dept. this past May, where he was working an additional three shifts per week, and through which he had only last week gained his national First-Class Firefighter certification.

Willis’ boss at SFD echoed his Grover FD counterpart’s praise for Richard’s dedication. “Richard Willis was a ‘people person’” said Santee FD Chief Ed Barnett. “Everybody loved him.”

“He was an active member, an over-achiever,” added Dorchester County Fire Chief Tres Atkinson.

But as his family and co-workers prepared to lay their colleague to rest with full firefighter honors Thursday, the community’s discussion focused upon the railroad crossing and its lack of protection. Mary Lyons, who has a disability requiring her to use a scooter for transportation, said she crosses the tracks there often, and thinks there should be active warning devices like the flashing lights at the crossing a block south of the Ann Street/NS intersection. “I think all railroad tracks should have them,” she attested.

Nancy Chaney, who has lived near the crossing for five years and said she has “never seen anything happen like that (the tragic collision),” is also a proponent of increased crossing protection. “They could put some lights up,” she suggested. “If they put the lights in that would tell people there’s a train there if they’re not paying attention.”

Yet, St. George Mayor Anne Johnston indicated she thought the signs at the crossing were “adequate” warning, but still said she would be meeting with the town engineer Tuesday to discuss any plans for changes to the crossing protection system.