Surviving a rail incident can be a nightmare that lasts a lifetime

On July 12, 1996, when Jennifer McNorton was just 15, her life changed forever. She and her little sister, Krista, were taking a shortcut across train tracks in the town of Tecumseh, Ontario. When Jennifer heard a train coming, she leapt across the tracks in time, but her sister didn’t make it.

Over the past 22 years, Jennifer has never spoken publicly about the incident—but it is a day she can never forget. Now as a mother to two little girls, and an elementary school teacher, she knows how important train safety education is and she hopes that sharing her story will save someone's life. She recently shared her memories of that tragic day with Operation Lifesaver.

How clearly do you remember the incident?

It’s something I will never forget. It was life-altering and devastated my family and my community. I feel like, in some ways, my childhood ended that day.

I was 15 and my sister Krista was 11. We had only started our summer break a couple of weeks before and we were enjoying sleeping in and spending time together. We were going to buy a gift for a wedding we were going to, and I wanted to get to the shop quickly, so we double-rode on my bike until we reached the train tracks. When we got on the tracks, I walked the bike while we talked, and then I gave it to her to walk. I thought I could hear the train faintly but we were so involved in our conversation that it was really just background noise. But when I heard it again, it clicked in that a train was coming, so I told Krista: "I think I hear a train coming! We should get off the tracks." I can't even remember stepping off the tracks, but as soon as I did, the train sped past. I was so close to it that I thought I might get sucked in—I could feel the wind from the train passing me. 

The inquest later explained that I literally had seconds to react because of the weather that day. The way the wind was blowing, it kept the noise from travelling directly in front of the train. It was a perfect storm. The locomotive engineers initially thought my sister and I were garbage bags on the track. But once they got closer they realized that we were two children. They didn't even see us get off, so they assumed they hit us both.

When did you realize Krista had been hit?

Once the train went past, I remember hoping to see her, but I saw nothing. I was screaming "Oh my God" over and over at the top of my lungs but she was gone. The bike was a crumpled-up ball of metal at my feet and I realized that my sister was not okay, that she was hit.

People startled running to me from all directions and I told them my sister was hit. All I could do was scream. I was so afraid for my mom and that the news would kill her. She always said my sister and I were her life and she didn't know how she could survive if she ever lost one of us. So, at 15, I actually believed she would die at that moment. I was so scared knowing the pain that the news would bring to my mom, my dad and to my whole family. I have never felt so many intense emotions at once, yet been so numb at the same time.

When you think about that day, what do you remember most?

That’s a tricky question because I remember everything. I have replayed that entire day, every little detail, over and over. Years ago, I decided to stop torturing and punishing myself by replaying the accident in my head, because no matter how many times I did, I couldn't change what happened.

But there are little things that stand out. One is that when I came to the crossroad where I could have either gone left to go around the tracks or right to take the shortcut across them, I hesitated. I remember clearly that my instincts were telling me to go left, to take the long way around. I will never forget that because I feel like it was that split-second decision that changed everything.

How did that day change how you view trains and tracks?

Before the accident, I honestly thought we would have enough time to get off the tracks if we heard a train coming. The shortcut I took was a common one that I took almost every day. It saved quite a bit of time instead of having to detour all the way around to the crosswalk. Many kids used it. Obviously, we all believed we would be safe. But I learned a harsh reality and lesson from the accident—that life is fragile and it only takes a second for it to be over.

As for trains, I clearly now know to stay off the tracks because when you are on them you can’t hear a train coming until it’s too late. And trains are too heavy and too fast to stop in time. It took me years to be able to calmly even cross at a labelled crosswalk where there were tracks because even that caused me anxiety. To this day, the sound and sight of trains makes me sad. It's just a reality that I live with, an ever-constant reminder of the loss that never goes away.

If you could speak to kids who take shortcuts across train tracks, what would you say?

Your life is precious and fragile, so treat it that way. Make good choices. Think before you take a shortcut. Weigh out the pros and cons of a situation and know that you are not exempt from danger and tragedy—accidents like mine can happen to anyone. If I had understood that I was choosing to risk my life and my sister’s life, I wouldn’t have walked across the tracks that day. If I had known my sister would be killed, I would have taken the long way around.

Read my story and learn from it. I'm still dealing with the trauma. I wouldn’t wish this type of grief on anyone. This kind of mistake is an easy one to avoid. A shortcut might save you a bit of time but taking the longer route might save someone's life. Please stay off the tracks and keep yourself, your family and your friends safe.