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Suicide on tracks stops Amtrak in Florence

Staff Writer

A 21-year-old man thought to be a Newton resident killed himself early Sunday morning by either standing or sitting in front of an Amtrak train at a crossing in Florence, according to Undersheriff Larry Starkey.

The man, identified by Starkey as Michael Wiebe, died instantly.

Amtrak Train 3, known as the Southwest Chief, was traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles about 2:24 a.m. Sunday “when it was delayed for nearly two hours after it came into contact with a person trespassing on BNSF Railway tracks,” an Amtrak spokesman said.

“There have been no reported injuries to the 140 passengers or to the crew aboard our train,” spokesman Marc Magliari wrote in an email to the Record. “Amtrak is working with state and local authorities to investigate the incident, including the coroner and local police.”

The crew, he indicated, opted to remain aboard.

“Our train and engine crews have the option to take relief at the scene, and this crew stayed on duty to the scheduled crew change in Dodge City,” Magliari wrote.

Wiebe’s family lives in Delaware, Starkey said.

Wiebe’s vehicle was found parked on the road on the east side of the crossing, Starkey said.

“The train crew said he was either lying down or sitting down,” Starkey said. “Basically, at that time, it was a recovery.”

Train speeds are set by the owning railroad, Magliari wrote. Speeds at time of such incidents are provided to law enforcement and coroners to assist in their investigations.

Asked whether the speed in this case was 65 mph, Starkey said, “it was every bit of that.”

Florence firefighters responded and helped clear tracks.

“Two deputies were working that night,” Starkey said. “They were there before I was.”

Wiebe did not appear to have left a suicide note.

“Nothing that we could find,” Starkey said. “We looked in the vehicle and that, and we sure didn’t see anything.”

Wiebe was not known to the sheriff’s office or police department, Starkey said.

Counseling is always available for people who need it, he said.

“These incidents can affect everyone involved — those who are injured or die and their families, our train crews, and our passengers,” Magliari wrote. “They also serve as critical reminders about the importance of obeying the law and of exercising extreme caution around railroad tracks and crossings.”

Amtrak works closely with Operation Lifesaver to raise awareness about the dangers of being on railroad property or disregarding warnings at rail crossing.

“Incidents such as these are reported to both federal and state rail safety regulators,” Magliari wrote.

Anyone not authorized to be on railroad property, including using tracks as a shortcut, or not heeding warnings of an approaching train, is trespassing, Magliari said.

A study of fatal train-pedestrian collisions by Northwestern University researchers concluded that almost half of trespassing incidents in the study period were intentional acts on the part of the trespassing person. That study took place from 2004 to 2013 and analyzed data on fatal train-pedestrian collisions in the Chicago metro area.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center says less than 1% of U.S. suicides occur on train tracks.

The Federal Railroad Administration began collecting suicide data from U.S. rail carriers in 2011.

For each year from 2012 to 2017, more than 219 people died by suicide within the U.S. rail system, and another 220 individuals were injured during that period from rail suicide attempts. In 2015, the U.S. rail system experienced its highest recorded number of suicide incidents, 358, of which 328 were fatal.

The Volpe Center notes that those statistics likely under-represent rail suicides because some are recorded as trespass deaths and not as suicides. Rail suicides are a concern because they can result in copycat acts, the center says.

Starkey said the scene was graphic.

“That’s going to shake you up a little bit,” he said. “I don’t know if you ever get used to it, but you figure out how it’s best for you to deal with it. It was unfortunate whatever was going on in his life that it hard to come to that. He wasn’t known to us, and I don’t know why he picked that location.”

Recovery workers and investigators spent hours at the scene, among other things cleaning the Amtrak locomotive and a section of track more than a mile long.

Last modified May 11, 2023

 

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