Fighting the Good Fight

The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine 


by James F. Sweeney

The hill comes as a shock. Deerfield Avenue humps along the border between Stark and Wayne counties, running due north-south, but rising and falling over gentle hills between fields of corn and soybeans.

The hills are rounded enough to give a driver traveling at 50 mph that pleasant little lift in the stomach that comes from fooling gravity for just a moment, but not steep enough to make any but the most timid ride their brakes.

Until this hill.

A southbound driver who crests it expecting the usual dip will stab for the brake pedal. It's a 16-percent grade, meaning that for every 100 feet of road, it drops 16 feet. The two-lane blacktop falls away in a corridor of tall trees before bottoming out and crossing a bridge over a creek. The impression is of falling into a chute.

At the bottom of the hill, just before the bridge, railroad tracks run across the road.

Even with new crossing gates and lights and even though the trees and tall brush were cut back after the last fatal accident to give drivers a better view of approaching trains, it is still intimidating.

Even today, Jason Moore's parents don't know if their son had been on the hill before, but on the afternoon of March 25, 1995, Jason did what he was supposed to do. He stopped at the tracks, then marked only with crossbucks, looked left, saw nothing, looked right, saw nothing, and slowly pulled out onto the tracks.

The engineer on the eastbound Conrail train approaching from around a curve on the left saw the car carrying six teenagers pull out in front of him, but, at 58 mph, didn't even have time to hit the brakes.

"I want to tell you about the accident," says Dennis Moore, father of Jason, who lived, and Ryan who died.

"When the car was hit, Ryan and Joshua were ejected out the back window and traveled more than 200 feet. They both landed in the creek. Actually, Joshua landed on the other side of the creek and Ryan wound up at the base of an oak tree, a big oak tree.

"I don't know why I'm bringing this up except that people don't know what can happen when a train goes fast."

The train speed, which was traveling within the speed limit, struck the back door on the driver's side. The three passengers in the back seat, Ryan Moore, 16, Alyson Ley, 16, and Joshua White, 17, died. The three in the front seat, Jason Moore, 18, Jennifer Helms, 15, and Rebecca White, 16, lived, but Jason and Rebecca each lost a brother.

A jury ordered Conrail to pay the Moores $9 million - even though it found Jason bore 55 percent of the responsibility for the crash. The Moores decided to use most of the jury award to bring something good out of the tragedy. They created the Angels on Track Foundation to place lights and gates at dangerous railroad crossings throughout Ohio.

But Dennis and Vicky Moore are finding it takes more than millions and an unimpeachable goal to do good--and to feel good.

A tangle of state and federal bureaucracies have a say in whether and when gates and lights are erected at crossings: the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), the Ohio Rail Development Commission, local authorities and, of course, the railroads. None of them moves quickly.

The Deerfield Avenue crossing was known to be a killer. After the accident, neighbors talked about their own close calls and other fatal accidents. Ryan, Alyson, and Joshua were the sixth, seventh, and eighth deaths there since 1975. Their March 1995 crash was preceded by an injury accident a week earlier and a fatal collision in January of that year.

Just three months before the accident, the PUCO had ordered Conrail to install lights and gates at the crossing, but the agency gave the railroad the customary year to get it done. Not even the three deaths, subsequent headlines and publicity-seeking state legislators could speed up the process with the railroad. The gates and lights were not installed until November 1995 - eights months after the accident and 11 months after the PUCO order.

"If they had installed it before November, then we would still have our son and the other children," Vicky Moore says.

That sense of urgency, that feeling that other parents are going to lose a child to a train unless the Moores get there first with gates and lights, is what drives the Moores to campaign for safer railroad crossings.

"I get angry," Vicky says. "Why should we have to do this? This shouldn't be our job. I'll be crying and depressed and [Denny] will say, "Do you want other people to go through this?" And I'll say, "No".

The Moores are unlikely crusaders.

Denny, who's 47, owns a business that makes and repairs machine tools. He looks a bit like professional golfer Craig Stadler. Vicky, also 47, is a pretty brunette whose face is sad in repose. She cries easily. They live in a comfortable house near Canal Fulton in northern Stark County. Before their son's death, the Lions Club and PTA were as close as either had come to social activism.

The crash was the start of a forced education for the Moores, who had a million questions. Why was the Deerfield Avenue crossing, which plaintiff's expert William Berg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, called one of the most dangerous crossings he'd seen in 30 years, guarded only by crossbucks? Why is it the government's responsibility to install lights and gates and not the railroads? Why are local governments virtually powerless to regulate the trains that rumble through their towns?

The more they've learned, the more frustrated they've become.

As they find out that their millions and good intentions cannot stop trains and cars from colliding, the foundation is being threatened by the Internal Revenue Service. The Moores kept some of the money to pay for Jason's medical bills, some went to the attorneys, which left $5.4 million for Angels on Track.

It's still in the bank, now grown to $6 million with interest and donations. Because Conrail's check was made out to Denny, however, the IRS wants to tax it as income. The Moores have hired an attorney to protect the foundation's capital.

It would be easy to give up, to take the money for themselves and make a comfortable life a luxurious one, but the Moores cannot do it. Ryan's death still hurts, and working for Angels on Track is how they grieve.

The foundation stabs Vicky in the heart every day, then heals the wound, only to reopen it the next day. "It's a double-edged sword for me," Vicky says. "I need this to keep me going, but I hate it."

Dennis has done the grocery shopping for the past four years; Vicky is afraid of coming across the iced tea mix Ryan drank on the shelves. "As soon as I'd see it, I'd think I would never buy it for Ryan [again] and I'd stand in the aisle and start crying," she says.

She avoids driving by Northwest High School, which her sons attended. "I hate the summer when all the kids are home from school," she adds, "because it's a constant reminder that our son is not around. Everything is affected. The way you eat, songs, something somebody says."

Pictures of Ryan and the other victims fill her living room, turning it into a shrine. She put them up in a panic two weeks after the accident when, she recalls, "I closed my eyes and couldn't picture what he looked like."

While Denny is at work, Vicky retreats to an upstairs bedroom converted to an office. Whatever space is not occupied by the computer, printer, fax machine and file cabinets is taken by angels. They float across a wallpaper border and crystal and glass miniatures sit on a shelf. A large oil painting of an angel playing the harp sits in a chair. In the corner is a color photo of Ryan, the picture cradled in the arms of a teddy bear.

She cruises the Internet, sending e-mail to other railroad safety groups, tracking state and national legislation, collecting newspaper clips about train accidents, writing letter and encouraging local officials to get involved. They accept, but do not actively solicit, donations. For a $20 gift, donors receive an angel pin designed by a family friend.

That sort of devotion is typical of Vicky, says Debra Messner, a longtime friend and the third trustee of the nonprofit foundation. The Moores said they chose her because they know she will carry on the work if something were to happen to them.

"[Vicky] is a distinct personality. She doesn't stifle her words. She's very intense. The only way to make those changes ever happen is by clamping on like a pit bull and not letting go," Messner says. "And that's what Vicky can do most of the time. As long as she's alive, I think she'll hang onto this for as long as possible."

"It is not unusual for a grieving couple to pour their energy into a cause," says Ruth Myers of Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents whose children have died. The Moores have been regulars at the monthly meetings of a Massillon chapter led by Myers.

Myers, for example, became a volunteer for Lifebanc after her daughter drowned eight years ago. She donated her daughter's heart and a kidney to other children and now encourages other grieving parents to do the same.

"You don't ever get over it, but you learn to cope with it," she says. "You come to a point where you control your grief; it doesn't control you.

"They're headed in the right direction," she says of the Moores. "They're healing. There isn't a day goes by that you don't think of your child, but it's not overwhelming."

The Moores still feel overwhelmed at times, such as when they hear the rumble of trains passing in the distance.

"I can feel the vibration of the trains going through Clinton even though it's miles away," Vicky says. "When we hear a train whistle, we stop whatever we're doing and just cringe. It just goes right through us."

"We lived here for many years and never heard it before," Denny adds.

The Moores' grief-fueled campaign has put them in a sometimes-awkward relationship with the government agencies charged with railroad safety.

The feel the PUCO and the Ohio Rail Development Commission are too slow, too complacent and not hard enough on the railroads. They question, for example, why Conrail was given a year to install lights and gates at the crossing where their son was killed.

Lights and gates must be customized for each crossing and coordinated with any nearby traffic lights, explains PUCO spokesman Dick Kimmins of the yearlong leeway. Additionally, wires or utility pipes sometimes must be moved to accommodate the gates.

For their part, agency officials are carefully complimentary of Angels on Track, but they resent the criticisms the Moores have voiced. There is the impression that they regard the Moores as well-meaning amateurs unwilling to accept the practical realities involved in regulating the railroads-and unwilling to give the government credit for the progress it has made.

In 1978, there were 879 train-car crashes in Ohio. Last year, the number was 136. The number of fatalities dropped from 63 in 1989 to 14 last year. Officials say there are many reasons for the decline. For one thing, abandoned tracks and closed crossings mean there are fewer potential accident sites. The state is mandating the installation of lights and gates at a steady rate and Operation Lifesaver-a foundation supported by the federal government and the railroad industry-teaches the public how to be safe around tracks.

"Our system works," says Kimmins. "The numbers are, I think, irrefutable."

It isn't working fast enough to suit the Moores, who think the system should be streamlined and the railroads should bear the cost of improved safety measures. Their answer is to apply pressure-from below.

They began a railroad safety task force in Stark County, inviting county commissioners,engineers, township trustees and others concerned to not wait for the PUCO, but to do their own survey of crossings to determine which are the most dangerous and petition the state to install lights and gates. They have helped start task forces in Wayne, Carroll, Delaware, Marion and Morrow counties as well.

Task force members are finding what the Moores already know-it is not easy.

"We really don't understand a lot of the jurisdictions," says Ralph Linsalata, director of Wayne County's Emergency Management Agency. He calls the snarl of state and national agencies a "voodoo jungle" of bureaucracies.

"The railroads are in control," he says. "It's their property and they have some far-reaching powers on their property. You don't know quite who to talk to. They're very slow to accept change."

Railroads generally have the right of way. Protected by interstate commerce laws and "we were here first" legal clout, they are largely invulnerable to local attempts to control the number, length and speed of trains. The communities can't even decide on their own safety devices.

So the county task forces must work through the state. Once they prioritize the crossings they want protected, the task forces, with the backing of county commissioners and other elected officials, can press the PUCO to order the railrods to install lights and gates. In those cases,the railrods usually put up 10% of the cost, with the PUCO picking up about 75%. The balance is paid by the community, and that can be a problem. Gates and lights can cost up to $180,000 a crossing and few communities have the money to put up their share. The railroads are financially responsible for maintenance-inspections and replacement of all parts to keep safety features in working condition. Their burden is eased by the newest state budget that allows them a $200 annual tax write-off for each crossing.

"Thirty to forty thousand dollars to a village or township can be prohibitively expensive," says Rob Marvin, chief of the PUCO's railroad division.

That's where Angels on Track comes in. By picking up the local share, the Moores hope to clear that funding barrier and encourage communities to do something about their own dangerous crossings.

The foundation recently recorded its first accomplishments. In May, the PUCO ordered upgrades to three crossings in Wayne County. Angels on Track will contribute $61,000 to cover the local governments' share. The Moores also persuaded the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad to accept a donated signal, one that uses new technology, for an unprotected crossing in Stark County. The system now in use relies on metal train wheels to close a circuit on the rails and trigger the lights and gates. The new method uses sensors buried in the railbed to detect changes in the earth's magnetism caused by the trains.

"What my wife and I are doing is trying to open people's eyes to what they can do. I think a lot of people think there is nothing they can do but complain," Denny says.

There is a long way to go.

Of the 6,249 public thoroughfare crossings in Ohio, 2,082 have lights and gates, 1,147 have warning lights only and nearly half - 3,020 are marked only by crossbucks. Since most crossings are decades old and their numbers are falling, why, the Moores wonder, do fewer than half the corssings have lights and gates?

Money, says Thomas O'Leary, executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission. The government has limited funds to pay for lights and gates.

O'Leary resents the Moores' asertion that his agency is not doing enough to make crossings safer. "There has been a very substantial decrease in the number of crashes and accidents," he says. "I don't like to brag about this, but it's unfair to my people who have been doing this for 15 years and really care about it."

The Moores don't want to hear it. They believe railroads should have to pay for lights and gates at all crossings, should fence off the tracks from pedestrians and should take other seemingly simple steps, such as putting reflective tape on the sides of railcars, to make crossings safer, they say.

"The law has to change and I don't know if Denny and I can do that. But until the laws change [collisions] will keep happening," Vicky says.

At the bottom of the hill on Deerfield Avenue, across the tracks, but before the creek, are three 2-foot high white plywood crosses with the names of the accident victims painted on them.

The Moores put them up, of course, and they trim the weeds around them.

"We used to go down there all the time, sometimes every day, just to walk around and look at it all," Vicky says sadly. Now they visit only two or three times a year, but they will return again and again.

"I never get away from it," Vicky says. "There are days I absolutely hate it and I want to get away. But I always go back to it because there is nothing else we can do."

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