(Elliston, Virginia – March 25, 2015)
A 3-year-old toddler, described by her grieving grandmother as “an angel” died at Roanoke, VA’s Carilion Memorial Hospital shortly after she and her two siblings were airlifted to the care center via helicopter after the car, driven by their father, they were riding in was struck by a Norfolk Southern freight train at the dangerous and unguarded crossing of Reese Mountain Road and NS tracks near Elliston, VA Wednesday evening at about 6:00 P.M.
Marlee Dawn Rickman-Lily, the victim, was taken to the hospital along with her 5-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister, each in an individual chopper, while the children’s father was taken to the same hospital by ground ambulance. Only the deceased child was identified by name, as investigating law enforcement officers refused to identify them due to their ongoing investigation.
The Reese Mountain Road/NS intersection is near the Lancer Truck Stop, and at least two truck drivers who witnessed the horrific accident called 911 for urgent response when it was learned children were involved. Meanwhile, considerable discrepancies were noted between what the witnesses saw and the railroad said.
Trucker Howard Boylan saw the collision, and trucker Allen Waltz both called the emergency phone number, Waltz at Boylan’s request as he ran to do what he could to assist the victims.
Statements on whether the train’s horn was blown and the speed of the train were conflicting. Eyewitness Boylan told numerous news media “All of a sudden the train came by and the car was coming across and they hit,” he said, adding that he only heard a pair of late blasts on the locomotive’s horn, and he felt the driver had no time to react.
The so-called “private” crossing has no active warning devices, such as lights and gates. It is virtually certain that if equipped with lights and gates this accident would not have happened. Both Norfolk Southern and Operation Lifesaver know that 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%.
“You’re supposed to blow the horn way back here, way up here, and let someone know you’re approaching, but I never heard him (even though) my windows were down and everything. I could have heard that horn, but I didn’t hear that horn until, I mean, he had ten seconds.”
“I honestly think that he (the driver/father) didn’t hear it (the train) because, you know, he didn’t have but 10 seconds,” continued Boylan, who ran to the auto, which had been thrown through a large fence paralleling the railroad tracks. “The young man was holding his baby and I just began to pray because I knew the baby was in bad shape.” As the called-for emergency responders “seemed like it took forever,” he made another 911 call. He also called for Divine intervention. “All I could do was pray. I just prayed out loud. I said ‘Lord, please help these young’uns,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, truck driver/witness Waltz said he saw the father holding one of the children and screaming. Waltz said the other two children were unconscious.
A statement from veteran Norfolk Southern Spokeswoman Susan Terpay claimed that “Our investigation is ongoing, but preliminary information confirms that the train’s horn was sounded well in advance and as the train was immediately approaching the crossing.”
Federal Railroad Administration background information on the NS/Reese Mountain Road intersection says that a daily average of 32 trains traverse the crossing at a maximum allowable speed of 30 mph. The stretch of track in that area may have been among lines where, after some track maintenance was performed, train speeds were arbitrarily increased by the operating railroads.