The Herald

June 10, 2007

By Jackson Holtz, Harold Writer

SULTAN - A teenager's death June 2 at a railroad crossing here has prompted cries to improve safety where privately owned roads cross the tracks.

The private crossing where Krystinia McCarty, 16, died last weekend is similar to others along rails in Snohomish County, from Stanwood to Edmonds, Everett to Index.

Snohomish County's private crossings are the deadliest statewide, according to federal statistics. And accidents at private crossings have accounted for nearly 70 percent of the rail crossing deaths in the county in the past two decades.

Since 1986, 11 people have lost their lives at private crossings. That compares with seven deaths where public streets cross the tracks.

"It's foolish to believe that if we do nothing we're not going to suffer this tragedy again and again and again," Snohomish County Fire District 5 Chief Merlin Halverson said.

In the Skykomish valley, from Monroe east, there are at least 26 places where roads cross the railroad tracks.

Each year, county and city officials work to improve safety at public crossings. They spend state and federal money to add traffic lights, bells and crossing arms, all designed to stop drivers from straying into the path of an oncoming locomotive.

Unlike public roads, private crossings are unregulated.

The signs and other traffic controls at private crossings are governed by private agreements between property owners and the railroad.

In Snohomish County, most private crossings have a stop sign or cross bucks, the X-shaped signs that are supposed to caution motorists that they are driving near trains.

Federal and local officials now are studying ways to make private crossings safer or eliminate them altogether.

In Sultan, community leaders - many with high school-age children grieving Krystinia - are looking for solutions.

"It's very evident that something needs to happen," Sky Valley Visitor Center director Debbie Copple said. She has a daughter Krystinia's age and a son the same age as Jeff Hales,18, who was seriously injured in last weekend's crash.

Engineering, education and enforcement are considered the best ways to decrease crossing risks, experts say.

Near Sultan, there's talk of closing private crossings or installing signals and bringing in experts to teach kids about the dangers of trains, Copple said.

"If we can make even one area safer then that's a step in the right direction. It's just painfully hard to loose these kids," she said.

Nationally, the Federal Railroad Administration is conducting meetings to discuss safety at private crossings, spokesman Warren Flatau said.

They hope to better define responsibility for safety at the crossings, including setting standards, he said.

Every day in Snohomish County, an average of 50 trains rumble through at speeds approaching 80 mph. There are about 77 places where public roads cross the tracks at grade, meaning there is no overpass or bridge. There are many more where private driveways and roads provide access across the steel rails.

Marysville has 12 rail crossings, the most of any city in the county. They are a top priority, city engineer Kevin Nielsen said.

"We're always talking about it. It's dynamic, it's not static," he said. "What can we do here? What can we do there?"

As the city has grown, what were once rural crossings have been upgraded to meet urban standards, he said.

For example, the crossing at 116th Street once was controlled by a slow-moving single-arm gate that tempted some drivers to try to beat trains. Now it features a double-arm span and traffic lights.

"All the bells and whistles," Nielsen said.

Most railroad crossings - the ones at public roads and private - are located in the unincorporated parts of the county.

County officials review the crossings each year to ensure the correct signs are in place and the vegetation is cleared back, Snohomish County traffic engineer Jim Bloodgood said.

"We take rail crossing safety very seriously," he said.

Research shows that increased law enforcement at crossings prevents collisions, Flatau said.

Elsewhere in the nation, police officers ride with engineers, spotting people trying to beat the train, he said.

In Snohomish County there are no special programs. The Snohomish County Sheriff's Office has in the past conducted enforcement campaigns, spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. No plans are in place to resurrect that type of enforcement.

The most effective way to make a crossing safe is through engineered solutions, said Vicky Moore, a spokeswoman for Angels on Track, a national organization she started in 1997 after her youngest son was killed at a crossing.

"The best protection is gates. They reduce accident fatalities by 90 percent," she said. "A sign doesn't protect you; it doesn't tell you a train is coming."

Adding crossings signals at private crossings is a good idea, said Bob Boston, the state spokesman for Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide group that promotes rail safety.

A stop sign is the only warning at the crossing where Krystinia died last weekend. It is the same location where a firefighter died when struck by a train in 1986.

"It would be ideal to see something better than what's out there now. Whether it's practical I don't know," Boston said.

Flashing signals and gates cost about $200,000 to install, Boston said.

"That's why you don't see them at private crossings," he said.

Sheriff's detectives are still investigating what caused the collision that killed Krystinia.

On Friday, Hales remained in satisfactory condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Krystinia, an honor-roll sophomore who had been elected junior-class vice president, was tutoring Hales. She was helping the senior with French homework so he could march in yesterday's graduation ceremony.

"She had a whole life planned out," Krystinia's mother, Kim Mann, said. "She knew exactly what she wanted to do."

Krystinia hoped to follow an older brother to the University of Washington. She wanted to become a doctor.

For her Sultan High senior project, Krystinia planned to work for Fire District 5, where her grandfather is a fire commissioner.

"She was the sunshine of a lot of people's lives," said Krystinia's sister, Pamelia Mann, 24.

Krystinia's family said they are thankful for the support of the community, the school district, local police and fire departments, and Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad.

"It is a real tragedy. It's had an impact not only on her family, but the whole community," Krystinia's father, Michael McCarty said. "No parent should experience it. Unfortunately a lot of us do."

Now, the family is focused on taking care of Kyrstinia, planning her memorial service and burial, and sending prayers and thoughts to Hales for his recovery.

Still, they'd like to see improvements at the railroads crossing.

"I'd like to see lights all along," Mann said. "Maybe if there were lights there, maybe they would have stopped."

Herald reporter Scott North contributed to this story.

Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or jholtz@heraldnet.com.

Memorial service planned
A memorial service for Krystinia McCarty, 16, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at Sultan High School, 13715 310th Ave. SE. A viewing is planned from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday at Purdy & Kerr with Dawson Funeral Home, 409 W. Main St., Monroe. A graveside service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Sultan Cemetery.

Donations can be made to the Krystinia McCarty Fund at any Bank of America branch. The family intends to give part of the donations to Snohomish County Fire District 5.

Railroad crossing safety
Someone dies or is hurt at a railroad crossing in the United States on average every 90 minutes. Any railroad crossing can be dangerous, experts say.

Train traffic can occur in both directions on tracks at all hours of the day.

The large size of trains can make them appear to be moving much more slowly than their actual speed.

A train pulling 100 cars can weigh up to 200 million pounds. It can take a train that heavy up to a mile to come to a stop.

When crossing an uncontrolled track, look both ways, roll down the window and shut off the radio.

To avoid stalling on the tracks, don't change gears on a railroad crossing. If you do stall and a train is coming, get out fast.

Safety experts offer this advice: Look. Listen. And live.

For more information, go to Washington Operation Lifesaver, www.wutc.wa.gov/waol, or Angels on Track, www.angelsontrack.org.


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