The lasting impact of a rail tragedy

When Hillview Elementary School’s Class of 1978 come together for their 41st reunion in Menlo Park, California on May 11th, they’ll share pictures of their kids, and maybe even grandchildren. They’ll reminisce about the past. And they will remember their former classmate Anne Marie Hard.
The 14-year-old was hit and killed by a train in 1978. But even after more than four decades, those who went to elementary school with her have not forgotten the tragic incident that took her life. Susan Laird is one of them. She will be one of the people at this weekend’s reunion and she shared her memories of that day with Operation Lifesaver.
Anne Marie Hard was killed when she and a friend went around the lowered guard gate after a commuter train left the Menlo Park depot. What the girls didn’t know was that the sound and rumble of a departing train masks the sound of an approaching train.
I had blissfully left the depot area with a milkshake from Foster’s Freeze five minutes prior with my father after school, but friends witnessed the entire thing. They had nightmares for years afterward.

Anne Marie’s friend just made it across the tracks, and Anne Marie almost made it...but her foot slipped off her bike pedal at the crucial moment. She and her bike got caught up high by the “cow catcher” on the diesel engine. Then she was immediately flipped under the train as it entered the street intersection. Anne Marie’s body was dragged over 100 feet before the train could stop.
Friends said it was like it was in slow motion, but the reality is, it happened in one second or less.
All this happened in September of 1978. But my classmates and I remember it extremely well.
The Menlo Park PD came to our school the next week. The cops were stern and quite angry about the waste of life. How could we kids be so dumb? They were there to scare us. And they did.
I learned more about the power and danger of trains than I ever wanted to know. About what will happen to your body if you get your feet caught in a switch on the tracks. How you can kill other people or maim them by putting pennies on the tracks. And more graphic information...
Trains are a safe transportation resource, for the most part. But they are powerful, and must be respected. They rarely depart their rails, so we should stay off the rails whenever possible.
I don’t blame the trains. I don’t blame the victims. The fault is lack of knowledge. I do think we need to teach children to stay off the tracks from a very young age, and why in an age-appropriate manner.
Susan Laird is  columnist for The Mountain Democrat in Placerville, Calif., and editor emeritus of East Sacramento News.