A lifetime of heartache from a moment of distraction

Cellphones are everywhere these days. In fact, most people couldn’t imagine life without them—especially teenagers. But phones can also be distracting, which can be extremely dangerous, especially when walking or driving near railway tracks.

In February 2012, 16-year-old Jacob Hicks was struck and killed by a freight train at a level crossing in Oshawa, Ont. According to witnesses, he was wearing headphones and was looking at his phone at the time. He did not hear or see the train approaching, even though the crossing gates were lowered, and warning bells and lights were activated.
Jacob’s tragic story is the subject of a new video produced as part of Operation Lifesaver’s #STOPTrackTragedies campaign. The video is being unveiled during Rail Safety Week, from September 18th to 24thIn it, Jacob’s mother, Janice, talks about what this tragedy has meant for her and the rest of her family. Here’s some of her conversation with Operation Lifesaver.
What was Jacob like?

Jacob was loved by everyone. He had the biggest smile and the best laugh. He lit up a room when he walked into it. Growing up, he was extremely shy, so he loved to spend time with his family. He was just an overall great kid. He loved his friends, and he never wanted to see them sad. He always wanted to do whatever he could to make them happy.
Where was he going on the day of the incident?
Jacob was starting his first day of a co-op placement that he had through school. He was supposed to take the bus there from school, but had missed his bus. So, he called me at work, and I picked him up from school, and drove him down to the location. I told him the things I thought he needed to know about being in a co-op placement, and about being responsible— including not being on his phone. We said our goodbyes—and that was the last time I saw him.
What do you know about what happened that day?
When I got home from work, I didn't think anything of it when Jacob wasn’t home because he had told me that he might have to make up extra time in order to get enough hours for his co-op. But then I got a phone call from my stepson saying that Jacob had been clipped by a train. I didn't know what to say or what to do. I phoned 911 and the dispatcher put me on hold for a while and then said that there was an officer on the way. The police picked me up and drove me to Sunnybrook Hospital and we sat there for what seemed like forever. When the doctor finally came out, he started to describe all the things that they had tried to do. But they weren't able to save him.
From your understanding, how did the incident happen?
Witnesses said that Jacob had his earbuds in and his cellphone out, and that he was not paying attention to where he was walking. The train whistle sounded, but I guess he didn't hear it. His dad and I often wondered—because it's a dual track and there are freight trains and passenger trains that go by—if he saw a train go by and thought “I'm okay to go.” But he obviously misunderstood, or was distracted.
Where was the crossing in relation to your house?
It happened about 10 minutes from our home. We had moved to this part of Oshawa about seven months prior. We had lived in the north end of Oshawa prior to that, so Jacob was not familiar with the area at all, and never had reason to go in that direction before.
What conversations did you have with Jacob about railway tracks and rail safety?
So, I’ve thought about what, if anything, we'd ever told Jacob about rail safety. We certainly did talk about bike safety and about looking both ways before he crossed the street. But even though his dad loaded cars onto freight trains for a living, I don't think we ever talked to him about railway tracks or about how, if the gates were down and the lights flashing, that he shouldn't proceed. I don't know if we ever even crossed tracks walking together. So, maybe he just didn't understand that he too had to stop for the train.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell him?
I would definitely teach him about rail safety. I have those conversations with my grandchildren now. They know exactly what the gates mean, what the lights mean, and when they can't cross. He was a 16-year-old boy, and his phone was important to him. But I thought I had told him what he needed to know about not being on his phone and being distracted. I work in a high school and I tell lots of kids about not being on their phones, and about not being distracted. Teenage boys and girls think they're indestructible. They think they can do whatever they want, and nothing will happen to them.
What impact did his tragedy have on you and your family?
Life has not been the same. I'm not sure that I will ever be the same person I was. Jacob was my world. I've had to learn how to live my life without him being a part of it. I'm sure it's the hardest thing that I'm ever going to go through. I miss him every day.