A young life cut short by a photo shoot on the tracks

In September 2015, 16-year-old John DeReggi Jr. and his girlfriend Natalie Crim were posing on the tracks in Boyds, Maryland, just a half-kilometre from his house. The photos taken that sunny day show a happy young couple smiling and holding hands. What they don’t show is what happened moments after the photos were taken.

When a train came along, Natalie and her sister, the photographer, were out of harm’s way, but John (or John John, as he was known) was still on the tracks. He didn’t make it. He was hit and died instantly.

John John’s tragic story is the subject of a new video that’s being launched as part of Operation Lifesaver’s 2019 #STOPTrackTragedies campaign. His story will be one of eight—including five new videos— which will be promoted as part of the 2019 campaign during Rail Safety Week (September 23 to 29).

In the video, John John’s mother, Christine, talks about his death and the lasting impact it has had on her family. Here is some of her conversation with Operation Lifesaver.

What can you tell me about why John John was on the tracks that day?

It was a Monday, and there was no school that day because it was Rosh Hashanah. His girlfriend’s sister had a photography project where she had to take pictures of people moving forward in life. So, they had made plans to go to the railroad tracks to show people moving on and leaving home. He asked me if he could go and I thought about it for a second and I was like, “We only live a quarter mile from the tracks, they are three smart kids, they aren’t going to horse around. They aren’t drinking or doing drugs, they’re doing something for school. They’ll be able to hear the train or see the train.” I thought they would be okay. He left at about 2:30 p.m. for the shoot and that was the last time I saw him alive.

How did you find out he had been killed?

His girlfriend called me. She said John John had been hit by a train and he was dead. And it was the worst moment of my life. I got in the car and drove like a bat out of hell down to the road to Boyds' country store, which was a quarter mile away. I called my husband screaming, just screaming, that John John had been killed. When I arrived, I found him on the railroad tracks. My husband actually carried my son into the coroner’s van. The hardest thing he’s ever done in his life was to carry his son’s body.

Do you know how it happened?

Just before the accident, they were walking on the tracks, holding hands and embracing. Natalie’s sister, Sarah, was the photographer. Natalie stepped off the tracks to make sure they were getting the right pictures, and a train had just gone by, so they figured they were safe. John John was balancing on the rails and Natalie just looked up for a second and saw another train coming. She screamed to John, but he didn’t make it.

Are you able to look at the photos of him and Natalie taken that day?

I have photos of my son all over the house, and many of them are the pictures from that afternoon. Every photo brings joy and heartache to me at the same time. Four years later, I cry a dozen times a day. Just the thought of it brings me to tears, rocks my world. They are short-lived bouts now; they don’t last for a long time. My grief has changed over the years. It’s not the constant, stabbing ache 24 hours a day that it once was, because I am able to think of my son and all the joy and love that we had.

What message you would have for someone who is thinking about taking pictures on tracks?

The destruction from an incident on the tracks is irreparable. We’re so ignorant of how dangerous it is to take pictures on tracks. You think it’s an innocent thing. People run on the tracks, they take pictures, they walk the tracks, they have no idea how dangerous it is. I just hope that my son’s story can save somebody – some other family – from experiencing this type of tragedy.