March 15, 1999 is a day Ashley Igo will always remember. It was a day that changed her life.
She was eight years old and travelling on an overnight train from Chicago to her home in Memphis with her mom, her two friends, Rainey and Lacey Lipscomb, their mom Cindy, and Ashley’s niece, Jessica. It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime for the group of young girls. But a single mistake changed everything—forever.
The train derailed after it smashed into a semi-trailer truck that had gone through a rail crossing in Bourbonnais, about 90 kilometres south of Chicago. Ashley’s mother, two friends and her 11-year-old niece all died in the accident. Ashley lost her right leg below the knee.
Ashley’s story will be one of eight videos featured in Operation Lifesaver’s 2019 #STOPTrackTragedies campaign during Rail Safety Week (September 23 to 29). Each video tells the personal story of someone affected by a rail incident. The videos are a harsh reminder of the lasting effect a rail incident can have.
Ashley spoke to Operation Lifesaver about the tragedy and how it changed her life. Here is some of that conversation.
What do you remember about that trip before the accident happened?
We were actually coming back from a spring break trip to see the American Girl flagship store in Chicago. We loved American Girl dolls, so Cindy Lipscomb and my mom, June—who were best friends—thought it would be really fun for us to go to the store for the weekend. I was not thrilled about going on a train, actually, but they thought it would be fun instead of flying. But the trip was every little girl's dream. I'd never been to a big city like that and I think we ended up going to the American Girl store two different times. It was super fun and a really awesome girls' trip. It was something that we looked forward to for months.
What do you know about how the train derailed?
So, my understanding was that the truck driver tried to beat the train at the crossing. I have seen pictures, and he made it almost completely across, but our train collided with the tail end of his flatbed. That's what caused the train to derail. We were in the sleeper car, which was more toward the front, so we got the brunt of the damage.
What do you remember about that night?
I pretty much remember everything. Lacey and Rainey had convinced their mom to spend the night in our sleeper car that night. We wanted to have a sleepover. So, technically, they shouldn't have even been in our car. We had gone to dinner, just us girls, and on the way back to our car we said goodnight to the others. We were looking out the windows at the lights of Bourbonnais and all of a sudden the lights inside the train flickered and it was like turbulence on an airplane. Then I noticed, once the lights flickered back on, that my mom had fallen to the floor. She was trying to get back up when the lights went off again and the whole train kind of started flipping—like someone put you in a Coke can and shook it, that was what it felt like.
What happened after the train derailed?
I was knocked unconscious, and when I woke up people were screaming and there was fire and smoke everywhere and my mom was actually still alive. I was talking to her and basically saying, “I'm going to go get help, don't die. You will be okay.” She was stuck somewhere, and it was all dark so I just couldn’t see her, but she was definitely alive and trying to move around. Rainey, Lacey and Jessica were silent, and I later learned they had died on impact.
Then I crawled out a little bit on the gravel that was next to the tracks and I realized that my foot was gone. I began calling for help. But lots of people were calling for help. A few seconds later, this huge guy picked me up and brought me to an area of the field where there were a bunch of triage people. I sent him back to go get my mom. And he said he would go, but obviously he wasn't able to get to her.
Do you remember what went through your mind when you realized you were the only one who had survived?
I don't know that I thought about it in that moment. I think that's been something that I’ve processed over the years. I was on a lot of pain medication in the hospital, so I just remember kind of going back to sleep after they told me. But I am so blessed that I have never really felt the survivor's guilt, because so many people feel that. I feel like I have a purpose and I know that the girls and my mom, they are all in heaven and I will see them again.
The driver that caused this accident made a tragic mistake. If you could go back to that night and talk to him, what would you say?
I guess I would like to stress that it’s so important to take signs and crossing laws seriously. His decision to try and beat the train that night negatively impacted dozens of people for the rest of their lives. A split-second decision could mean life or death, and it’s just not worth it to take the risk.