Angels on Track: Couple turns a tragedy into a legacy

Twenty years ago this month, Vicky and Dennis Moore lost their 16-year-old son Ryan in a train-car crash at a remote crossing at the boundary of Stark and Wayne counties. The tragedy led the former Stark County couple to establish the Angels on Track Foundation, which promotes rail safety.

Ed Balint
The (Canton) Repository

March 29, 2015 / Michael Balash

Twenty years later, it’s no easier for Vicky and Dennis Moore to talk about the death of their teenage son.

Last week marked the anniversary of Ryan’s death in 1995. The car in which he was riding was struck by a train while crossing tracks south of Canal Fulton along the Stark-Wayne county line.

There were six teens in the car. Two others — Alyson Ley, 16, and Joshua White, 17 — also were killed.

Sitting on the couch in their living room, tears welled in Vicky Moore’s eyes as she recalled that day.

The sense of loss never leaves. It comes back when she hears a train whistle in the distance. It comes back during media interviews. It comes back at random moments.

“It never leaves you,” she said, voice breaking. “You just have 20 years under your belt to learn how to deal with it — one day at a time.”

Their son is never far away, either in their hearts or in photos of him on shelves in the living room of their home near Mechanicstown in eastern Carroll County.

“It doesn’t get better, it’s something you carry with you the rest of your life,” she said. “Others go on with their lives and you’re still in that moment where your whole life has changed.”

The tragedy also gave rise to what’s turned into a lifelong mission — promoting, advocating and fighting for safer railroad crossings.

The former Canal Fulton area residents founded Angels on Track, a nationally-recognized group. Roughly $5.4 million of a jury award from a lawsuit in the crash was used to establish the private nonprofit foundation to improve rail crossing safety.

“Am I angry?” Vicky Moore asked rhetorically. “I’m angry, but I’ve tried to turn my anger into something positive.”


Vicky Moore recounted the crash. Ryan’s older brother, Jason, was driving; he survived. Jason approached the railroad tracks on Deerfield Avenue NW. The crossing had a reputation for being treacherous. An injury crash had occurred earlier that month. Another collision in January was fatal.

Vegetation had obscured the remote tracks. The crossing had no gates or flashing lights, only warning crossbucks. Jason, 18, had stopped at the tracks and looked both ways before pulling forward slowly, she said.

“My son did nothing wrong,” she said of Jason. “He lost his only brother (and two close friends), and to this day he still carries that with him and will for the rest of his life.”

“If I would have been at that crossing the same day, the same thing would have happened,” she said.

The mother balled one of her hands into a fist. “The thing that makes me angry is eight months later, they installed gates (and lights at the crossing).

“There haven’t been any accidents or fatalities (at the crossing since then), and that’s because I feel gates are saving lives.”

At that particular crossing, the gates and lights weren’t the result of her son’s death, she said. Lights and gates had already been planned. But the Moores discovered that a vast number of dangerous crossings existed throughout the state without the same protection.

“When the accident happened, we were like everyone else — ‘How could this happen?’” said Dennis Moore. “But when we saw the crossing our son was killed at, and realized at that moment what wasn’t done — the sight line and the vegetation at the bottom of the hill (and gates and lights had not been installed) — we just thought, ‘How could they let this go on?’”

That crossing haunted the mother. She would crawl from bed, in the small hours of the night, driving her car to the crash site. In her pajamas, she sat in the car, listening in silence.

“I was drawn to the crossing in the beginning,” she said. “I had to be where my son took his last breath.”

Inside the car, she thought about Ryan, asking silent questions. “Was he afraid? What was he thinking?”

A train would roar past. “I used to just scream as loud as I could and just beat on the steering wheel,” she said.


Despite the efforts of the group, and its positive impact, the Moores have grown frustrated over the years.

Vicky Moore firmly believes the political influence of railroad companies makes it difficult to accomplish more.

“We’ve talked to numerous politicians that will look you in the eye and agree with everything you say (and they) want to make changes,” Vicky Moore said. “But the minute their back is turned, they do nothing.”

The Moores say they also must battle the frequent misperception that drivers are to blame for most car-train crashes.

Angels on Track has changed its focus since its inception. The group helped start multiple rail safety task forces across the state. Few are active today, she said.

The foundation discontinued its task force program; it no longer awards grants to the groups because requirements weren’t being met, including providing photos of crossings and vehicle counts, Vicky Moore said.

Angels on Track provided roughly $470,000 in reimbursement grants for 17 sets of crossing gates installed in Stark, Medina, Huron, Delaware and Wayne counties.

Crossbucks, the only warnings at many crossings, are not enough, Moore said. “It isn’t even protection — it’s minimum signage, it doesn’t protect you.”

The group now focuses on reporting the location of dangerous crossings throughout Ohio and highlighting the need for gates and lights at those spots.

Lights and gates have been posted at nearly 50 of the reported crossings, Vicky Moore said.

According to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, federally-funded safety upgrades are chosen based on a priority list that ranks the crossings in order of risk of accident.

Dangerous crossing reports also are sent by Angels on Track to the Ohio Rail Development Commission, which partners with the utilities commission on selecting the location for crossing projects each year, said Megan McClory, secretary-treasurer for the ORDC.

“We look at that closely when looking at potential projects,” she said of the reports generated by Angels on Track. “They’ve been very active.”

The overall efforts are making an impact, McClory said. According to the utilities commission, the number of train-vehicle crashes in the state has decreased from 123 in 2001 to 61 in 2013. Fatal crash statistics show that 53 occurred in Ohio in 1990; 25 in 1995; 14 in 2006; 4 in 2011; and 7 in 2013.

The Ohio Rail Development Commission oversees the spending of roughly $15 million annually in Federal Highway Administration funding for crossing improvements in the state, McClory said.

Another group, Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit organization, works to reduce collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights-of-way.

Although crossing crashes have decreased greatly since the 1970s, Operation Lifesaver agrees that more can be done, said Libby Rector Snipe, the group’s director of communications. Every three hours, in the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train, according to the group.

Rector Snipe noted that while Operation Lifesaver receives the majority of its funding from “federal government safety partners, major freight railroads and Amtrak are also contributors.”

On the issue of political influence, she wrote in an email that “from our perspective, railroads are vitally interested in reducing vehicle-train crashes.”


Angels on Track also promotes rail safety with roadside billboards, including some in Stark County. The group’s message is: “Bad Crossings Kill Good Drivers.” Public service announcements are broadcast on radio and television, urging Ohio residents to report the location of dangerous crossings.

Dangerous Crossing Reports can be filled out online at

A database, operated by the husband and wife tandem, also tracks dangerous crossing locations for use by the foundation.

The couple has considered stopping Angels on Track. The constant reminder of losing a child weighs on the parents, always there, always in the shadows.

But the group also helps those who have lost a loved one in a train crash. Sometimes it’s another parent. They call, write a letter or send a card.

Vicky Moore relates to those who are grieving, her own loss still raw two decades later.

“She ends up being a great counselor,” Dennis Moore said of his wife. “She reaches out to these people and they reach out to her.”

But helping others isn’t easy, Vicky Moore said.

“If I get a call from somebody, I immediately go back to 20 years ago,” she said. As she spoke her eyes stared off distantly. Emotion filled her voice.

“I don’t tell them what to do,” she said, her eyes wet with tears. “I say, ‘I can’t take away your grief...’”

The Angels on Track correspondence isn’t always positive. Some of it’s nasty. The worst: “Your son deserved to die.”

“I can’t even think of the words to describe it,” Vicky Moore said. “I would try to respond to those idiots ... and explain what we’re about and what we’re trying to do.”

Positive encouragement is also received, including from past and present employees in the railroad industry, Vicky Moore said.

The memory of their 16-year-old son stokes their desire to accomplish more.

“I don’t think we’ve ever thought we’ve accomplished enough,” the husband said.

Added his wife, “I’ve dedicated the rest of my life to do this for my sons, for both of my sons.”


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