For families of victims, the impact of a rail tragedy lasts a lifetime

For more than two decades, Simonne McNorton has been on a mission to educate children about rail safety—for a very personal reason. Twenty-one years ago, her own daughter was killed by a train.
In July 1996, Simonne’s 11-year-old daughter Krista and her 15-year-old daughter Jen were taking a shortcut across the tracks in the town of Tecumseh, just East of Windsor, Ontario. Simonne’s older daughter Jen managed to jump off the tracks when she heard the train coming. Krista did not.
Since that tragic day, Simonne has been sharing her family’s story in the hopes of saving other young lives. She recently spoke to Operation Lifesaver about that tragic day and how one innocent mistake changed her family forever.

Can you tell me about your daughter’s accident?

My oldest daughter had taken this particular route through one of the parks in our town of Tecumseh. It didn’t have a complete fence, so you could go to the end of the fence, walk through and over the tracks to the other side. They had a bicycle—because they were double riding it—and they decided to take the shortcut. They were walking in the middle of the tracks and within no time my oldest daughter Jen heard the horn. She said it happened so fast that she could barely comprehend it.

She took a step off—and she was looking over at her sister—and then there was a blur of steel in her face. The train had zoomed right by her; she doesn’t even know how she didn’t get sucked in. The train obviously went by within seconds and then there was nothing. Her sister was missing. She was gone. She could see that the train had stopped and she was looking and she couldn’t find anything. Then when she turned a different direction, that’s when she saw the bicycle all mangled in a ball and she went into shock. I guess she went down on her knees and was just screaming because she knew that it was not a good outcome.

There were people coming from every direction because they could hear the screams. Everyone started looking but no one could find my daughter Krista. They couldn’t see her anywhere. It took quite a while and finally, I’m told, they found her in the tall grass. She was hit in the back of her body and was flung from the tracks to the tall grass, and that’s where she laid. She had died instantly.

This was her very first time taking that shortcut on the tracks. And this shortcut was used multiple, multiple times a day by many people, because it was such an easy, convenient thing to do at that time. She was in the process of getting off the tracks but because she had the bike, it delayed her just a few seconds, and that few seconds made all the difference. And the question that kept coming over and over and over—through many days and months and years after—was why didn’t they hear the train? Why did this happen, or how could this have happened?

What do you hope sharing your family’s story will achieve?

I’ve just been a person that’s been open about the story; when people ask, I share it. It was our reality and our truth of what had happened to our family back in 1996, and it was complete devastation. As years went on I got asked to share our story for different purposes, whether to give support to other parents, or to raise awareness and help others. I think people of all ages, especially the children, need to hear the message that you have to really stay away from any train tracks.

My kids weren’t playing on the tracks, it was just very innocent. It was just a quick shortcut. But unfortunately, that shortcut ended Krista’s life. And you know, the message really is just to be careful, stay away from taking any shortcuts, only cross at those designated crossings and to be aware of all the signs they have out there.
I believe that even if sharing my story makes a difference for one life, it’s well worth it. But I hope it has a widespread impact.

What would your message be to parents in particular?

I guess I’d tell them to pay attention to the surroundings and where you live. And if you live close to train tracks, to especially pay attention. I know that when we lived near the tracks when I was young, I almost felt that the tracks were a safer route without realizing it was a huge danger. I wish I would have thought about it and realized that “wow, we have high speed trains coming through there” and to say to my children “don’t even think about it; don’t even go there.”

I would also tell parents to make sure to educate their children as much as they can. And to share the story of my little girl. All it takes is a second. It was just an innocent, “let’s do this quick shortcut, and we’ll be where we need to go a lot faster.” Unfortunately, that decision changed everything for my family.