Living with the loss of a child to a rail tragedy
They say that time heals all wounds. But for Len Rachar, there are some wounds that don’t ever heal—and losing his son Jesse is one of them.
On October 19, 1997, Jesse was hit and killed by a CP freight train in Parry Sound, Ont. He was just 12 years old.
Jesse was playing on the tracks with friends when he was struck by the train. It was a stretch of tracks that Len himself had worked on for many years as an employee for the railway.
Len spoke to Operation Lifesaver about that tragic day 25 years ago, and why he has made it his mission to spread the rail safety message.
How would you describe Jesse?
He was my best friend. He was happy-go-lucky and such a polite and energetic young man. He was as innocent as the day was long, and the best person I ever knew in my life. He was my life—and a very large percentage of my life left with my boy that day.
Can you tell me what happened on that tragic day 25 years ago?
There have been so many different stories that I’ve heard. I guess there were some 12-year-old games involved by the sounds of it—and I had suspicions about that all along. Recently what I was told by the girl that was actually holding my son's shoulders when the impact happened, was that they were running back and forth across the tracks. When the train came, she went to pull Jesse out of the way, but his foot was stuck under the rail. The hand railing from the train caught my son between the shoulder blades and the back of the head—and he died in the hospital half-an-hour later.
Had anything like this ever happened before? Were you aware that he'd ever played on the tracks?
I was totally unaware of it. I had schooled him since the day that we started walking through town together about how dangerous railway tracks were and how dangerous trains were. But he was always excited that his dad got to drive trains once in a while and I don't know if that connection drew him into that area that day, or of it was just his friends. I have no idea. I don't know if he saw the train or heard it. He was playing with his friends and he made a mistake. It was a bad error in judgment and it cost his life.
How did that tragedy affect you personally?
Because of my familiarity with trains—and I had walked that stretch of track for six years—I knew every inch of the track where my son got hit. I could picture everything so vividly and I still can to this day. After the accident, every time I heard a train, I had a dream—and it wasn’t a pleasant dream. I left Parry Sound for 20 years because I couldn't handle the sound of the train whistles.
Since coming back to the community, you have done a lot of outreach to spread the rail safety message. What do you want to achieve?
Train tracks go through the heart of this town, in both directions. I just want awareness, and I'd like it to be safe. People shouldn't have to live with what I've been thinking about for 25 years, because it's not fun. And if my son’s story will help save a life, then that's the way it should be, and that's what it's meant to be.