A Calgary reporter remembers the sound of the train’s horn as she slid into its view
It was Nov. 5, 2011, the day after the first snowfall of the year.
With my iPod plugged into the dash of my little Chevy Sonoma truck, I bobbed my head to the tune of country music. The music seemed appropriate for the surrounding scenery of those oh-so-familiar back roads, which had taken me from my parents’ house in High River to their farm by Blackie many times. I took in the beautiful prairie fields and roads where I could drive for miles without meeting another vehicle.
It was a serene day that was about to go horribly wrong. The previous night’s snow had melted enough to form a sleek sheet of ice. I was relieved that my stepdad had just put winter tires on and added weight to the box of my truck. As I drove, I felt confident and prepared for the extreme road conditions.
During the drive to High River to visit my mom before returning to Mount Royal University residence, I reminisced about childhood days of playing in the barn with my kittens, climbing our crabapple tree and racing my horse around the fields with my friends.
“Keith Urban was on the radio singing “Somebody Like You” as my knuckles turned white from clenching the steering wheel.”
Then about half a kilometre ahead of me, something caught my eye. A silver van had come to a complete stop. The van hadn’t pulled off to the side of the road, but instead stopped right in the middle.
I recalled that my bus driver would drop some of my classmates off at this small hamlet called Mazeppa. Most people were so familiar with the local train tracks that they would roll through them – but not my school bus.
The school bus driver would stop, turn off the radio, open the door and look and listen for any signs of a train coming. When I received my driver’s license, I never stopped at those tracks. You could always see the train coming from a distance, so I figured there was no point in wasting time.
As my daydreams quickly disintegrated, I realized the van had stopped for a reason — a train was coming. I was far enough away that I was certain I could stop in time. This was until I realized that my new winter tires were no match for the thick layer of ice beneath them, I began to panic.
I felt my heart drop to the bottom of my stomach and I immediately felt nauseous. The brain usually forgets the little things, but in that traumatic moment, I was aware of every detail. Keith Urban was on the radio singing “Somebody Like You” as my knuckles turned white from clenching the steering wheel. I remember the crunching and grinding sound my brakes made as the anti-lock brake system kicked in. I was pressing down on the pedal so hard that my toes started to cramp up from the pressure. I remember the sound of the train blasting its horn at me as I slid past the bushes and into its view.
But most of all I remember the multitude of thoughts racing through my mind. I thought, “This is it.” At 20, my years on this Earth will be cut short, even though there were still so many things I hadn’t done. Why hadn’t I done those things yet? Why hadn’t I lived every day to the fullest instead of wasting time doing useless things like watching TV? It had never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have tomorrow to do those things, and now there would be no tomorrow.
I hadn’t really taken the time to tell my friends and loved ones how much they meant to me, and now I would never have the chance. I prayed that I had done enough good deeds to make it to heaven and I prayed that my family would be OK without me.
I thought and I prayed until I felt my truck shake as the train went past about five inches in front of me. There must have been a guardian angel with me that day because I had stopped just in time with not a second to spare.
There were precautions that I could have taken in order to avoid this situation all together.
“In the type of situation where you’re approaching a rural farm crossing, you have to be looking both ways in advance,” says Kevin Hrysak, spokesman for Canadian PacificRailway Ltd. “If you do see a train approaching, be sure to give yourself ample enough room to come to a slow stop, so that you don’t slide towards the crossing.”
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada website says that there were 94 railway accidents in 2011. Fifteen of those accidents were crossing accidents. Seven were fatalities.
In my case, after the four-car train passed, I realized that I had not seen it coming because it was short and easily hidden by the bushes.
I began driving again after I had exchanged a wide-eyed look with the man in the van. I owed my life to him. If he had not been there, I wouldn’t have slowed down in time. I would have been a victim to the train.
But as I drove, shock started to hit me. I began shaking so uncontrollably that I had to pull off to the side of the road. I cried out of relief and I cried out of fear. I cried out of joy and I cried out of anger at myself for being so careless. At that moment, I realized how extremely grateful I was for the beautiful life I had been given.
From that day forward, I decided I wasn’t going to let anything hold me back from saying the things I needed to say and doing the things I needed to do. I’ve heard it time and time before: we need to live each day to the fullest because we never know what tomorrow could bring, but it took a near-death experience for me to fully understand the meaning of this.