A young life changed forever by a rail crossing tragedy

On February 17, 2005, 12-year-old Samantha Lefebvre was walking home from school with her best friend. It was a short walk that the two girls from Brockville, Ont. did every day. But on this particular afternoon, that routine trip tore Samantha’s life apart.
Samantha and her friend were hit by a freight train at a rail crossing in a “second-train collision”; the girls saw the first train pass but didn’t see a second train coming from the other direction until it was too late. Samantha was hit on her right side. But her friend (who is not being named at the request of her family) died instantly.
Samantha has spent the past 17 years trying to live with the physical and emotional trauma of that day. Her story is featured in one of four new videos produced for Operation Lifesaver’s #STOPTrackTragedies campaign. The videos are being unveiled during Rail Safety Week from September 19th to 25th. In her video, Samantha talks about her incident, the impact that it has had on her, and how it has made her think differently about tracks and trains. Here is some of her conversation with Operation Lifesaver.
Can you describe the route you took to school every day?
We lived probably a 15-minute walk from the school, and the tracks were about a quarter of a kilometre from the school. I had to cross those train tracks to and from school every day. To be honest, at that age I don't really think I paid too much attention to how dangerous train tracks are — until my accident happened. I enjoyed walking to school — just the freedom of being out in the world without my parents.
Can you tell me what happened the day of the accident?
When we were coming up to the tracks after school, a VIA passenger train went past so we couldn't hear the other train coming and we couldn't see the other train. It wasn't until a split second before it hit that I knew that the other train was coming.
What do you remember after the second train passed?
I blacked out from the pressure of the second train, and I then woke up on the side of the road with paramedics everywhere. When I woke up, I was kind of in shock. I was like, “What happened?” And they told me that I’d been hit by a train. And then I started looking around for my best friend. And they said she was gone — she was sucked under the train and was killed instantly.
What happened to you?
The front of the train hit me in the middle of the back, which caused the brachial plexus in my right shoulder [the network of nerves that sends signals from the spinal cord to the shoulder, arm, and hand] to be crushed completely. I also cracked my tailbone after the train threw me 20 feet up into the air and I fell back onto the tracks. Somebody saw it happen — he helped me off the tracks, asked me my name, my phone number, and called the ambulance. But I don't remember any of that part.
How did this tragedy affect you physically?
It has affected me in every way possible—from the way that I think to the way that I solve problems. My right arm is paralyzed — I can't use it at all. So, my childhood was challenging, as I had to learn how to do everything with one arm: how to get dressed, how to feed myself, etc. It has taken 17 years to try to get comfortable with my life and learn how to do everything with my less dominant hand. It is a long process of recovery, for sure.
How did the incident change how you think about tracks and trains?
Just understanding that people go and use the tracks every single day and nobody thinks about how quickly something like that can happen — how quickly somebody’s life can change and how quickly you can lose somebody. I wish that I could have stopped it from happening. Starting over without your sidekick is not something that anybody should have to go through.
What would your message be to somebody who uses a level crossing every day like you did as a child?
My advice would be to always be cautious, no matter how safe or how many barriers there are at a train track; a million-tonne piece of metal can come at any time, and you wouldn’t even have the time to escape it. It can happen in a split second. Just keep your eyes open. Always be on the watch to make sure that both tracks are clear. Trains can come out of nowhere.