Longtime railroader describes the trauma of responding to two fatalities in one year

You hear about it when you’re hired on with the railway. Incidents happen, it comes with the job. You hope it doesn’t happen to you. But when you experience firsthand two railway-related fatalities in just one year, how could someone not ultimately ask the question: Why? This is exactly what happened to Mark Blanchette, a seasoned railroader and first responder, currently working for Goderich and Exciter Railways and as a supervisor for Genesee and Wyoming Canada in southern Ontario. He is also a volunteer firefighter, captain and medical technician. We caught up with Blanchette, an avid and longtime supporter of the Operation Lifesaver program, and asked him to share his account of these two tragic events.

Two railway-related fatalities in one year 

The year was 1996. Blanchette responded as a first responder to two fatal train vs. vehicle collisions, one involving a truck, and the other a car. In the wake of these preventable tragedies he found himself wondering how much the public understood about the presence of trains, railway equipment and the intersections where they meet. “Trespassers and people taking short cuts I could understand. People make a decision to do these things. But collisions at railway crossings, especially with automatic warning devices, these types of things I had a hard time understanding,” he explains. “If people understood the results of their actions they would not even attempt to cross without looking regardless of what protection was there.”

Comforting a truck driver struggling to survive

When asked about the incidents themselves, Blanchette starts by recounting the details of the truck vs. train collision. “The truck driver was working all night and did not see the warning system; he struck the train between the second locomotive and the first car. It was about -45°C that morning. When I arrived on scene, I couldn’t believe the driver was still alive; the cab of the truck was separated from the frame and 50 feet away in the snow bank. The paramedic had an oxygen line set up for the driver, but it was so cold that I told him that it wasn’t’ helping, so I crawled into the truck and held the mask to the driver’s face. Ten minutes later the rescue truck arrived. I remained in the cab and coached the driver to keep breathing while they cut what was left of the cab around him.”Emergency first responders car vs. train It’s apparent that this incident has stayed with Blanchette. “This was a difficult experience for me because I saw the outcome of the collision – the person sitting in the cab,” he says. “The driver ended up succumbing to his injuries on his way to the hospital. After, we went back and sat in the caboose and I spoke with the engineer and conductor. We had a coffee and talked through the incident step by step. It was easy to see that the crew was extremely shaken up by this incident and truly got a great deal of relief from just talking about it.”

A teen girl’s death hits close to home  

Blanchette had a personal connection to the second incident (car vs. train) he details for us. “It was a young lady on her way to meet her mother for lunch. As she approached the crossing near her house, she did not heed the activated warning system. The engineer stated it was like she was leaning over towards the passenger side of the truck. Whether she was changing the radio station or something had fallen of the seat, for that moment she missed a very important piece of information and crossed in front of the train. “By the time I arrived on the scene the body had been removed and the wrecker was about to pick up the truck. I didn’t give it another look,” he explains. “Then someone mentioned who it was that had passed away in the vehicle. It had turned out to be the daughter of a fellow firefighter—we had known each other for a long time.” Blanchette was impacted deeply by this incident not only as a father to two daughters but also in watching the teen’s family deal with the aftermath. “Watching the family having to deal with all the issues and stresses of losing someone close to them was extremely gut wrenching. Now, I make her the opening of all my presentations because people always believe it would never happen to them…until it does.”

Disturbing trends: trespassing and crossing incidents on the rise in Canada

Trespassing and crossing incidents are on the rise across Canada, a disturbing trend Blanchette can attest to. “The most disturbing trend for me is people who disregard the warning devices and decide to take a chance and make a run for it. They figure they can beat the train and save a couple of seconds by doing this. They believe that this big locomotive will leave them lots of time to get by. Ninety-nine per cent of the time they are wrong. Every year we deal with people who think they had time, time and time again.”

Lasting impact of being first on the scene

Working these kinds of scenes takes its toll. “Time and time again you arrive at these incidents and wonder why,” says Blanchette. “The lights are working, the sightlines are good, the equipment is operating as intended and the weather is good. There is almost a sense of helplessness. There is nothing else you can do to have prevented this from happening.” Firefighters responding to train incident Exploring this further, Blanchette reveals just how far reaching the trauma of a railway fatality can be. “We are charged with a very important job, and that is to ensure the public has a safe passage across our tracks. We must maintain a very high standard and put in many hours to ensure the public is not at risk. This is why when something happens at one of our crossings, or even a crossing at another railway, we are very disturbed by this,” he states. “Every regulation and standard that we follow during the process of maintaining public crossings and protection equipment is written in blood. Every time there is an incident with a train or equipment an investigation takes place. But, unfortunately, no matter what you do, someone always thinks they can beat the train. And that we can’t control.”

Something to think about when encountering railway property

In 1999 Blanchette began working with Operation Lifesaver to educate Canadians on what they can do to avoid becoming a railway-related fatality. He regularly does presentations and mock collisions.Firefighter rail safety Doing the work Blanchette does isn’t easy, but through his experience he shares an important rail safety message with Canadians. “Today my message is simple. Always give every crossing a second look. You wouldn’t drive through a vehicle intersection without looking both ways, so why would you do this at a railway crossing where the vehicle could kill you instantly. Trains don’t forgive mistakes.”