- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

CHARLOTTE, Mich. (AP) - Kelly Arnett remembers hearing the train coming. He also remembers thinking it was still quite a ways off.

He started to cross the railroad tracks at Stoddard Street near Dean Park on March 22, something he has done almost daily after school for years.

The crossing gates were coming down as Kelly, 14, and a group of friends neared the tracks as they walked from a friend’s house to a teen center in downtown Charlotte, the Lansing State Journal (https://on.lsj.com/1TOnZNT ) reported.

“I’d never done it before,” Kelly said, of crossing when the gates were down. “But this time we were in a hurry to get to town. I thought I had more time.”

He never made it to the other side. The train hit him as he stepped across the tracks.

“The first thing it hit was my head. The train sort of lifted me up. When it hit me I just went flying, but the train was fast. It kept up with me. It wrapped me around and hit my leg.”

Friends and bystanders rushed to his side. He was laying by the tracks shaking, blood pooling on the ground from a deep gash on his forehead, his left leg broken in several places.

He survived, and in the six weeks since he’s been focused on recovery.

His mother Amber Cogswell, 38, said her family hasn’t been able to steer clear of the rumors surrounding her son’s accident.

He wasn’t playing “chicken” with an oncoming train that afternoon, she said. But he did make a bad decision, and Cogswell hopes her son’s story becomes a lesson learned in train crossing safety.

“I don’t want another parent to go through what I did. I got lucky,” Cogswell said. “Who’s to say if the next parent will be this lucky? I don’t ever want it to happen again.”

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Train collisions aren’t uncommon in the U.S. Last year 500 people were killed crossing railroad tracks, according to Sam Crowl, state coordinator for the Michigan Chapter of Operation Lifesaver.

And Charlotte is as busy a place as any in the region when it comes to train activity. There are 73 railroad crossing in Eaton County, according to the Eaton County Sheriff’s Office. Nearly a third of those, 23, are in the Charlotte area, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s figures.

An estimated 15 to 20 trains run through Charlotte each day, said Canadian National Railway Company Spokesman Patrick Waldron.

Trains were a factor when voters supported a millage in 2007 to build a second fire station on the west side of the city. At the time their frequency was higher, an estimated 20 to 30 each day, Charlotte City Manager Gregg Guetschow said. The new station positioned fire trucks and staff on either side of the tracks to improve response times.

“Your odds were going to be that a train would go through Charlotte every hour of the day,” Guetschow said.

Three years ago Matthew Wagner, 16, was struck and killed by a train on the railroad tracks near Harris Street, a block from his house. He was walking on the tracks at the time of the accident. A makeshift memorial still marks the spot where he died. Through the years there have been many other incidents involving pedestrians and vehicles being hit by trains in the community.

Crowl said he gave a presentation at Charlotte schools shortly after Wagner’s death but his group, which is aimed at preventing train crossing accidents, hasn’t been back since.

Operation Lifesaver makes regular presentations at schools across the state.

The message, Crowl said, is simple.

“Kids don’t understand,” he said. “A train moving at 50 miles per hour takes an hour to stop. It’ll travel the space of 18 football fields first. Trains don’t stop quickly.”

Crowl spent 40 years as a railroad engineer. He said during that time he witnessed people crossing tracks illegally daily.

“It could be anybody,” Crowl said. “A lot of people cross tracks to take short cuts and they’re taking a real risk.”

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Kelly suffered a concussion and a skull fracture. Most of his teeth were broken when his head hit the front of the train. His right hip was twisted, but his left leg took the brunt of the impact. It was broken in three different places below the knee.

But Cogswell will tell you it could have been worse.

She knew her son was alive before she arrived at the hospital. A friend with him at the railroad tracks after the collision called her from Kelly’s side. She drove to Sparrow Hospital in a daze and admits she didn’t “wake up” until she saw him.

“I do remember that was the fastest I’ve ever driven,” Cogswell said. “I just wanted to make sure I got there when he got off that ambulance, and I did.”

At the hospital doctors prepared the family for worst case scenarios, including the possibility of brain damage, the amputation of Kelly’s leg, and facial reconstructive surgery.

“The first three days were tough,” she said. “Just because I was trying to deal with everything at once. Everything just seemed so dire to me, the way they were talking. They were really scaring us.”

Cogswell said she had never given thought to how many trains travel local tracks until Kelly was hit, and it shocked her to learn how many travel through the city every day.

She wants teenagers to pay closer attention to them.

Kelly said he knows now crossing the tracks was a risk he shouldn’t have taken.

“I did a dumb thing,” he said. “I shouldn’t have tried to cross.”

Cogswell said she hopes others can learn from hearing his story.

Kelly spent a week in Sparrow Hospital, and faces a long recovery. He hasn’t put any weight on his left leg yet, which is still in a brace. But in another month he’ll likely begin physical therapy, the next step toward walking.

Cogswell’s apartment has stairs that are impossible for Kelly to climb. So she and her three children moved into the home of a family friend, Kristan Clark. They’ll stay there until he’s walking.

Cogswell said Kelly has struggled with anxiety over the recovery. “It has been an uphill battle for us,” she said.

But ultimately, his determination has prevailed.

“The fact is that even through his anxiety he still gives it the old heave-ho and ends up surpassing expectations,” she said.

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Information from: Lansing State Journal, https://www.lansingstatejournal.com


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