“It happened so fast,” Old Town resident Katherine Brookshier told me, recalling what she witnessed Nov. 18 a few blocks from her home.
“It was horrible.”
At roughly 3:20 p.m., Brookshier was in her car, waiting at the railroad crossing at the intersection of North McCarver Street and Ruston Way, where two sets of tracks cross the roadway connecting Old Town to Tacoma’s postcard waterfront. She was headed toward Ruston Way, intent on grabbing a bite to eat before continuing on with her day.
Brookshier remembers seeing a large freight train slowly moving in front of her. As it cleared the roadway, she says it came to a stop just beyond the sidewalk where 28-year-old Alexandria Lewis of Tacoma was waiting to cross, heading up the hill.
Though the railroad crossing arm was still down, preventing car traffic from traveling over the tracks, no such arm extends in front of pedestrians. Brookshier vividly remembers Lewis beginning to walk anyway — traveling over the first set of tracks and past the freight train’s caboose.
As she reached the second set of tracks, Lewis was struck and killed by Amtrak Cascades train 507.
Brookshier told me Lewis was thrown back across the tracks, “maybe 20 feet.” Along with another witness, Brookshier — who says she’s worked in hospitals in the past — quickly responded, rushing to Lewis and checking for a pulse.
There was none.
“By the time she would have seen (the train) … it would have been too late, which it was,” Brookshier explained of the tragedy. “The most terrible thing is, it’s something that I looked at and thought … this could have happened to anyone.”
I completely understand what happened. I understand why she went. I understand why it wasn’t entirely clear not to go. Katherine Brookshier, who watched as 28-year-old Alexandria Lewis of Tacoma was hit and killed by an Amtrak train in Old Town on Nov. 18.
“I completely understand what happened,” she continued. “I understand why she went. I understand why it wasn’t entirely clear not to go.”
Still shaken, Brookshier told me this week that she plans to advocate for more safety features at the rail crossing at North McCarver Street. She believes a crossing arm that extends across the sidewalk could have prevented Lewis’ death, or that clear signage warning of the second set of tracks could have helped.
Brookshier reached out to me last week, hoping that more coverage of this most recent fatality at or near the McCarver Street railroad crossing — where 31-year-old Cale Tyler was killed by an Amtrak train almost exactly a year earlier — would help her effort gain traction.
“I believe your phone calls are taken with a different attitude than mine are,” she explained at the time.
Whether that’s true remains to be seen. But what I learned from two days of poking around is this: Determining responsibility for safety upgrades at railway crossings like the one at North McCarver Street can be contentious.
BNSF Railway owns the tracks in question. Even so, according to BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas, as well as Janet Matkin, rail communications manager for the state Department of Transportation, requesting safety upgrades at a rail crossing is the city’s responsibility. So, in all likelihood, is finding a way to pay for it.
“It’s not our crossing. It’s the public’s crossing,” Melonas said. “It comes across our property, our railroad. … They determine what type of warning devices to invest in. In this case, if the city determines that additional safeguards are necessary, BNSF would be willing to discuss this with them.”
Melonas added that BNSF would be responsible for installing and maintaining any new safety measures.
Kurtis Kingsolver, Tacoma’s director of public works, acknowledged that making a request to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission for safety upgrades at the North McCarver Street crossing is a responsibility that rests with the city.
When it comes to paying for it, however, there’s an apparent difference of opinion.
“What they’re telling you, which I’m not saying isn’t true, is if the city feels strongly about making safety upgrades, it should pay for them. What I’m saying is I think they have a responsibility as an owner, and we work together on that,” Kingsolver said.
I can’t deny that we have some responsibility. … I just don’t believe that all the responsibility lies on the city. Kurtis Kingsolver, Tacoma’s director of public works, on who should pay for safety upgrades at the North McCarver Street crossing
“I can’t deny that we have some responsibility. … I just don’t believe that all the responsibility lies on the city.”
That’s a fine philosophical argument to make. But here’s what’s clear: There have been two fatalities at or near the McCarver Street railroad crossing in just over one calendar year. Something needs to be done. Without additional safety measures, a tragedy like the one that claimed Alexandria Lewis will happen again.
The money is secondary. Whether it’s the advocacy of residents like Brookshier that inspires changes, or something else, action is what’s needed.
Luckily, Kingsolver isn’t so steadfast in his beliefs as to miss the bigger picture. While he maintained that Tacoma would be “aggressive” in arguments over who might ultimately pay for additional safety precautions at the McCarver Street crossing, he acknowledged that, “at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.”
“We’re going to look into it,” he assured.
“It is our city, and it’s important to us.”