In the West family portrait the youngest child, Samantha, a smiling, blonde eight-year-old, beams as she poses naturally alongside the people she loves: mother, Roxane, grandmother, Betty and brothers Brennan, 27, Eric, 20, and Andrew, forever frozen at age 13. The photo is in most ways typical of family portraits, a smiling, happy family lined up in an outdoor setting - that is, except for one very conspicuous difference. Andrew’s presence comes in the form of a framed series of four photos held up by one of his siblings. This is the only way that Samantha knows her brother because he died before she was born.
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Andrew West was a human teddy bear – physically and in his easy-going, sociable personality. At the age of 13 he experienced a growth spurt that saw him rise to an impressive 6’1” height, grounded by his size 14 feet. His mother remembers him as a fun-loving prankster who carried her around the house and would tuck her into bed at night so that the pair could talk about their day. He was extremely close to his brothers and was rarely seen without his dog, Max.
On June 25, 2001, Andrew completed his final exam of the school year early. He was a Grade 8 student at St. Martin de Porres School in Airdrie, Alberta and with school officially over for the year, he had a lot to look forward to. First, with his 14th
birthday a mere 11 days away, would be obtaining his learner’s license. Then there would be a summer of fun – camping trips, time spent with his friends and family and enjoying his first tastes of the freedom that comes with being able to drive.
But right now, Andrew decided against waiting for the school bus he took every day and instead, set out on foot to meet his friends for a slush at the Shell on Main Street. This trip required Andrew to cross the railway tracks that run through the centre of Airdrie. With his headphones on and his hands in his pockets, he walked along the tracks, no doubt enjoying the pleasant weather and an exhilarating sense of summer’s impending freedom.
Unbeknownst to him, a train was heading straight for his back, the frantic engineer applying the brakes and sounding the horn. Andrew died on impact and Roxane takes solace in the fact that he would not have known what was happening.
For Roxane it was an ordinary day – she’d baked Andrew his favourite muffins and was waiting for him to arrive home to do his chores. But instead of Andrew, the police arrived and their news was devastating. It changed the West family forever. Andrew was gone and they would never experience his warmth again.
“It’s horrible. He was my world and suddenly he was gone. It’s been 10 years and he’s missed dating, graduation, marriage, kids – everything,” says Roxane.
With the loss of their cherished son, grandson and brother, the West family gained a mission. In the aftermath of Andrew’s death, they met Constable Gordon Wharf of the CP Police and he introduced them to Operation Lifesaver. Now, everyone, including young Samantha, is a vocal train safety advocate. For Roxane this is the only reasonable reaction to Andrew’s tragic death.
“They say things happen for a reason – so I hope that this happened so that people could learn from it and ultimately, so that lives would be saved. It can’t keep going on like this. If I didn’t believe Andrew had died for a reason this would be all the more devastating. Out of his loss, this is what I have. He died for a reason.”
Roxane currently works with Airdrie’s city council to improve safety around the city’s railway tracks by rallying for pathways, fencing and barriers. Her son is Airdrie’s only train-related death and she hopes that statistic will remain steady forever.
“Andrew is the first and he shall be the last. That’s my goal. Pay attention to your surroundings, educate yourself and others; stay off the tracks. It destroys your family and everyone around you.”
Andrew’s grandmother, Betty Melik, is a presenter for Operation Lifesaver. She also partners with the RCMP during Rail Safety Week to hand out pamphlets to pedestrians walking near the tracks where Andrew was killed. She recognizes that every railway related death impacts everyone in the community. As such, the promotion of rail safety must become a focus for the entire community.
“No one should have to go through this kind of pain and loss. And it goes beyond our family to the engineer, crew and their families. Not to mention the police and first responders. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of safety at all times. Parents, teachers, please be a mentor to your children – their future depends on it.”