(Louisville, Kentucky – November 26 – December 29, 2013)
A 73-year-old Hopkinsville, KY resident was struck by a Norfolk Southern freight train which flung his vehicle against a large stack of railroad ties as he traveled to attend a holiday dinner at about 7:30 P.M. November 26 in southeastern Louisville, KY. The motorist had his lower spine severed as he attempted to turn his Ford Focus around on a dangerous, unguarded Norfolk Southern railroad crossing after he took a wrong turn.
Daniel Bruce Somerville, formerly of Jackson, MI, but a long-time Kentucky resident, was transported to the University of Louisville Hospital, where he has remained in the Intensive Care Unit since the Thanksgiving week tragedy.
The crossing, which accommodates an average of 16 NS trains daily at a top speed of 35 mph, does not, as a private crossing equipped only with passive signage and having no active protective systems such as flashing lights, bells and crossing gates, even require, under Federal Railroad Administration rules, that train operators sound a warning whistle when approaching the crossing. According to FRA records, the November 26 accident was the fourth to occur at the crossing.
It is virtually certain that lights and gates would have prevented this incident. Both Norfolk Southern and Operation Lifesaver know lights and gates are the most effective type of protection at railroad crossings. Studies that have been conducted over fifty years ago confirm that lights and gates offer the ability to drastically reduce the number of vehicle/train accidents by as much as 96%.
The victim, who was well known for his volunteer civic work for the United Way, American Red Cross and Boy Scouts of America as a Scout Leader, has had constant bedside visitation by his three grown children since the November accident, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. At first, “He was unresponsive, but he’s sitting up with a back brace now and is more responsive,” reported Sommerville’s daughter, Polly Rowley, who has been among the three-sibling team, which includes his sons, Richard and Robert Sommerville, all Jackson, MI-area residents, who have alternated a vigil in his ICU room, never leaving their father alone. “He can’t speak, but he can respond by nodding and smiling and opening his eyes to people,” Rowley continued. “They’re trying to wean him off of the ventilator,” upon which he has been dependent since entering the hospital, and which has helped him survive several bouts with pneumonia during his lengthy convalescence.
Although divorced from his wife of 23 years, Elaine Christiansen, for quite some time, the pair have remained friends and had a good relationship since the termination of their marriage. “The thing about (the crash) is if he was 10 seconds one way or the other, the train would have killed him or it would have missed him,” surmised Christiansen. “It’s just a blur of time and really poignant when you look at it.”
Indeed, the presence of active crossing protection would certainly have been pertinent in the prevention of a life-altering event that might never have happened had the use of the train’s whistle been required and there been flashing lights and gates at the crossing.