A dan­ger­ous pose

Train tracks are pop­u­lar photo venues. Those who use them un­der­es­ti­mate the risk.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DAN MORSE

Sarah and Natalie Crim had just taken 35 pho­to­graphs on the train tracks. The 16-year-old twins stepped off and looked at the screen on Sarah’s 35mm cam­era.

Sev­eral pic­tures caught their eyes. One showed Natalie hold­ing hands with her 16-year-old boyfriend, John DeReggi. Another showed Sarah, the sun light­ing up her hair, with John strik­ing a skate­board­ing pose atop a rail. As the sis­ters clicked through im­ages, John stayed on the rail, bal­anc­ing.

Be­hind the teenagers, less than a mile away, Am­trak’s Capi­tol Lim­ited was head­ing to­ward them at 76 mph.

What hap­pened mo­ments later — a train loom­ing, star­tled peo­ple who had been tak­ing photos— has be­come a deadly phe­nom­e­non na­tion­wide. John, a well-liked high school ju­nior in Mary­land, be­came the fifth per­son this year killed while tak­ing photos or videos on train tracks in the United States.

It’s not just kids tak­ing photos. Pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers like to pose high school se­niors on tracks to evoke mov­ing on in life. Brides and grooms seek sim­i­lar shots. Par­ents even take photos of their tod­dlers on the rails.

“Peo­ple al­ways think they have time to get away. That’s a mis­take you can’t undo,” says Marc Or­ton, di­rec­tor of vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Nor­folk South­ern Rail­way.

In his six years at that po­si­tion — where, among other du­ties, he co­or­di­nates safe photo shoots near tracks for the com­pany’s mar­ket­ing — Or­ton has seen a grow­ing num­ber of por­traits taken by the public on tracks.

“It’s an alarm­ing and grow­ing trend,” says Aaron Hunt, spokesman for another large rail­road com­pany, Union


In Boyds, in Mont­gomery County, where John DeReggi was killed three weeks ago, Carl Hobbs regularly sees pho­tog­ra­phers on tracks be­hind the small-en­gine re­pair shop he owns.

“There are peo­ple tak­ing pic­tures all the time,” he says.

In­deed, while John, Natalie and Sarah were tak­ing photos, another three teenagers were do­ing the same thing about 150 feet away. One of those three, Jeremy Sprites, 16, says he has taken photos on ac­tive tracks more than 30 times. “A lot of kids atmy high school do it.”

Natalie and Sarah at­tend Clarks­burg High School, where they are honor roll stu­dents and play var­sity field hockey, and where this year Sarah signed up for a pho­tog­ra­phy class. One of her first as­sign­ments: Take a se­ries of photos that would il­lus­trate push­ing for­ward in life. The twins had been on the rail­road tracks be­fore and said in an in­ter­view that they felt they would be safe.

Ris­ing alarm in the in­dus­try

For as long as there have been trains and cam­eras, peo­ple have been tak­ing photos near tracks.

Rec­og­niz­ing that ap­peal, the rail­road in­dus­try is in­creas­ing ef­forts to tell teenagers and pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers that shoot­ing photos on the tracks is not only dan­ger­ous, but also is tres­pass­ing.

In June, Union Pa­cific posted jolt­ing an­i­mated videos over so­cial media show­ing teens pos­ing for photos on roads. In one, set on a coun­try high­way, an 18-wheeler comes up sud­denly from be­hind; in another, it’s a city bus that swoops in.

Why, the videos ask, would stu­dents who wouldn’t feel safe tak­ing se­nior-year photos in the mid­dle of a road think it was fine on rail­road tracks?

This month, Op­er­a­tion Life­saver, a rail­road group, will host a Web-based seminar with the Pro­fes­sional Pho­tog­ra­phers of Amer­ica to dis­cuss the dan­gers of track pho­tog­ra­phy and ex­plore safer al­ter­na­tives. Op­er­a­tion Life­saver regularly mails letters to pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers whose track pic­tures show up on the In­ter­net. The group will roll out its own public ser­vice an­nounce­ments this year.

While the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion keeps track of how many pedes­tri­ans are killed by trains, it doesn’t break out what they were do­ing when they were hit. But the FRA, Hunt, Or­ton and oth­ers in the in­dus­try say pho­tog­ra­phy on tracks is a grow­ing prob­lem.

Part of the rea­son, they say, is the con­stant photo-shar­ing over the In­ter­net — mean­ing im­ages that once would have been tucked away in phys­i­cal al­bums are now zip­ping around, plant­ing ideas for sim­i­lar shots. And with so many cell­phone cam­eras, there are sim­ply more peo­ple tak­ing more photos of ev­ery­thing.

“This is a trend that seems to be go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion,” says Travis Camp­bell, a lo­co­mo­tive engi­neer in Idaho.

Dur­ing a decade op­er­at­ing freight trains, Camp­bell says, he has come up on peo­ple tak­ing pho­to­graphs more than 50 times. Some­times it’s peo­ple on the tracks who rush out of the way. Other times they re­main next to the tracks, cell­phone in hand, to snap a selfie with the blur­ring train be­hind them.

The risk, of­ten lost on oth­er­wise care­ful peo­ple, is high: The selfie-tak­ers don’t re­al­ize that trains ex­tend sev­eral feet be­yond the rail. And those on tracks don’t re­al­ize that a train mov­ing at 70 mph is cov­er­ing the dis­tance of a football field ev­ery three sec­onds.

“All rea­son and logic,” Camp­bell says, “seem to go out the win­dow when peo­ple get around train tracks.”

A com­pelling set­ting

The ro­mance and history of trains make for com­pelling pho­to­graphs.

Ear­lier this year, in Hart­ford, Wis., Mike Daly’s wife, Rox­anne, gave him a sur­prise Fa­ther’s Day gift: A pro­fes­sional photo shoot on the tracks, com­plete with a Bat­man cos­tume for him and a Robin out­fit for their 15-month-old son, Finn. Rox­anne po­si­tioned her­self across the tracks, as if she were tied down and Mike and Finn were res­cu­ing her. The pho­tog­ra­pher also got shots of Finn, seated by him­self, on the tracks.

The im­ages went vi­ral on the In­ter­net — and sud­denly the Dalys were vil­i­fied. “I get where they were com­ing from,” Mike Daly says, “and I’d cer­tainly not ad­vise peo­ple do it.”

But he said he has no re­grets, and one of the photos of all three on the tracks hangs in the fam­ily’s liv­ing room.

Three years ago, in Grand Rapids, Mich., high school stu­dent Tr­ever Ya­kich wanted a se­nior photo that played off im­ages in a mu­sic video for the song “Long Black Train.” He en­listed his cousin, pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher Se­siLee Cnossen, to take photos of him on rail­road tracks — play­ing his guitar while seated, play­ing his guitar while ly­ing on his back across the track, head rest­ing on one rail, feet on the other. “I didn’t feel that ner­vous,” Ya­kich says.

But Cnossen did, and she tried to get off the tracks within a few min­utes. She says now she tries to take her track photos on aban­doned tracks.

Get­ting ready for work last year in Vir­ginia, Nor­folk South­ern’s Or­ton found him­self drawn to a beau­ti­ful story on TV about a fam­ily in Ge­or­gia. Their 12-year-old daugh­ter suf­fers from mi­to­chon­drial dis­ease, which saps peo­ple of energy, and when her fa­ther danced with her on a stage, hold­ing her as they twirled, the footage was bounced around the world.

Mid­way through the piece, a fam­ily photo was posted: Eight peo­ple on rail­road tracks, in­clud­ing the girl in a wheel­chair and two other young chil­dren — a sight that shocked Or­ton. Af­ter get­ting to work, he asked a Nor­folk South­ern po­lice of­fi­cer to call the pho­tog­ra­pher.

On the other end of the line was Mag­gie Cul­ver of Stu­dio ME Pho­tog­ra­phy, who thought she’d taken pre­cau­tions. Not vis­i­ble in the photo was a road cross­ing, a few feet in front of the wheel­chair. “If we hear any­thing, grab the kids and go,” she had told the fam­ily.

“Did you know it was illegal to be on the tracks?” the of­fi­cer asked, ac­cord­ing to Cul­ver. “No, I didn’t,” she said. She lis­tened to him ex­plain the dan­gers, how fast trains can ap­pear. She took the photos off her Web site and has since urged pho­tog­ra­phers online not to use tracks, she says.

“You can get the same safe ef­fect from a fence line or a dirt road,” Cul­ver said.

‘Faster than I thought’

Two sets of tracks set out from Washington, head north­west into Mont­gomery County through Boyds and pass the his­toric Lan­der Lock House on the C&O Canal. Pep­per Scotto is a do­cent at the lock house, and on Satur­day, Sept. 12, she looked out to the tracks and sawa man get­ting ready to take pic­tures of four young chil­dren, in­clud­ing one no older than 3 who was pick­ing up rocks and throw­ing them.

“You re­ally need to get off the tracks,” Scotto re­called yelling.

The man ig­nored her. She walked closer to him, took out her phone and threat­ened to call the po­lice. The man re­luc­tantly left the tracks, lead­ing the chil­dren to a small park­ing lot nearby. Mo­ments later, an Am­trak train flew by. “That re­ally goes a lot faster than I thought,” the man said.

It was about 15 miles away, in Boyds, that Sarah Crim, Natalie Crim and John DeReggi ar­rived on Mon­day, Sept. 14.

Ear­lier, in Sarah’s pho­tog­ra­phy class, stu­dents had been asked to study a long quote from a mar­ket­ing cam­paign by the com­puter com­pany Ap­ple high­light­ing fa­mous ge­niuses will­ing to stand out and chal­lenge the sta­tus quo: Bob Dy­lan, Ma­hatma Gandhi, Al­bert Ein­stein and oth­ers.

“They change things,” Ap­ple ex­tolled. “They push the hu­man race for­ward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see ge­nius.”

Sarah and her class­mates were asked to cre­ate im­ages that il­lus­trated the quote.

She, her sis­ter and John got to the tracks about 4:30 p.m. A com­muter train passed, head­ing north­west. “Okay, I guess it’s clear for us to go now,” Natalie said.

Though just 16, she and John were very much in love. A year ear­lier, af­ter they started dat­ing, Natalie ar­rived home to flow­ers in her bed­room. John had given them to Sarah and asked her to put them there. “You seemed like you were hav­ing a bad day to­day,” a note he’d writ­ten said. “I hope this makes it bet­ter.”

The three walked to­ward the tracks, stop­ping for photos just be­fore they got to them. John, as usual, was en­joy­ing the mo­ment. He seemed like some­one, Natalie al­ways thought, who woke up happy and spent the rest of his day that way.

They made their way to the tracks, start­ing to walk north­west as they took more photos. Above them the sky was a clear blue. Be­hind them, all around, were tow­er­ing trees, some start­ing to change color but still thick with leaves that muf­fle sounds.

Natalie and Sarah paused, stepped off the tracks, and looked at the photos they’d taken. Sud­denly, from be­hind, they heard a sound and turned around. “Guys, there’s a train,” Natalie said. She looked to the tracks. Saw her boyfriend — shocked, pan­icked, not im­me­di­ately pro­cess­ing which way to jump.

“John!” she screamed.


Natalie Crim and John DeReggi, both 16, posed for pic­tures for Natalie’s sis­ter’s pho­tog­ra­phy class last month on rail­road tracks near Boyds, in­Mont­gomery County. John was killed by a train shortly af­ter this pic­ture was taken.


Chloe Kr­ish­nek had a se­nior pic­ture taken on un­used tracks in Boise, Idaho — but only be­cause some­one else was us­ing the ac­tive tracks when she and the pho­tog­ra­pher ar­rived.


Tr­ever Ya­kich of Grand Rapids, Mich., got his cousin, Se­siLee Cnossen, a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher, to shoot him on train tracks. She says the lo­ca­tion dis­turbed her.

John DeReggi

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