Mark Kalina, Jr., was walking back to his apartment near Ohio State University after an evening out with friends when he chose to take a shortcut across a railroad line instead of going out of his way to an underpass.
His detour cost him both legs.
PHOTO GALLERY: Great Midwest Whistle-Stop Safety Train
“I’m a trespasser. That’s why I’m here,” Mr. Kalina, 24, of Broadview Heights, Ohio, said as he stepped into the aisle of a special Operation Lifesaver train that Norfolk Southern Corp. operated Monday between Toledo and Butler, Ind.
He took those steps on a pair of prosthetic legs — one starting above the knee, the other below — for which he was fitted after the Oct. 12, 2012, accident in Columbus.
Grade-crossing safety was also a focus of the trip, with police patrols scattered along the route to write tickets to any impatient motorists who might have run around lowered crossing gates as the train approached.
But as safety upgrades — and perhaps motorist education too — have reduced the numbers of car-train collisions, the nonprofit Operation Lifesaver, funded primarily by the railroad industry, has put greater emphasis on an anti-trespassing message: Those who don’t work for the railroad don’t belong on railroad property.
“We’re here to promote railroad safety and get people to understand that railroad property is illegal to be on, and it’s also dangerous,” said Derrick Mason, a Norfolk Southern manager of grade-crossing safety.
Trespasser injuries have been going up nationally and in Ohio, where 24 people died last year and 20 were hurt while illegally on railroad property. That’s the fifth-most in the United States. Nine more people died, and 26 were hurt, in grade-crossing collisions statewide last year.
“Trespass numbers are increasing,” said Gena Shelton, Operation Lifesaver’s Ohio state coordinator, who told the train’s emergency responders, educators, and other guests that speakers like Mr. Kalina are available for any and all audiences.
“We’ll talk to your third graders, we’ll set up a booth at your fish fry,” Ms. Shelton said.
Michigan, which in general has fewer trains than Ohio, had one crossing death and 25 injuries in 2013, and six trespasser deaths and two injuries.
The safety train on Monday started out with a Monroe-Toledo trip, and passengers said that run included a close call with a bicyclist on a Monroe street.
After his accident, Mr. Kalina spent the first seven days of a 17-day hospital stay in intensive care. Within about two months he had learned to walk on his new legs.
He plans to return to Ohio State this fall to complete his bachelor’s studies in civil engineering.
“I was mad at myself, because I put myself there,” Mr. Kalina said. “Now I want to use my story, my experience to keep other people off the tracks.”
Mr. Kalina, whom Operation Lifesaver certified as a volunteer presenter in February, said he has used his prosthetics’ shock value during his talks by hiding them with long pants, then revealing them. He hopes his message will resonate in particular with younger people.
“I’m the main demographic for trespassing, and I appeal to a younger crowd,” he said.
Dorothy Yeager, Norfolk Southern train dispatcher, who was on Monday’s trip, said she gets calls from crews about, among other things, children playing “chicken” with trains that sometimes weigh more than 10,000 tons and need more than a mile to stop.
“You call the local police department, and you warn the crews, tell them to slow down,” Ms. Yeager said.
Contact David Patch at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6094.