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Operation Lifesaver

Mark Kalina, Operation Lifesaver volunteer, almost died two years ago when he fell underneath a train while trespassing. Kalina had both his legs severed in the incident. A video display behind Kalina shows a real-time image of what a train engineer sees when moving down a track.

"I got hit by a train!"

The voice of Ohio State University student Mark Kalina could be heard on the 911 tape recorded one October night three years ago.

"Where are you at?" the dispatcher said.

Kalina: "I am on the tracks."

Dispatcher: "What street are you on?"

"I have no idea," Kalina said, breathing heavily.

Dispatcher: "I have a spot where your phone pulled up to. We will try to get an officer and medics out there as soon as we can."

Kalina: "Please! Please! I am losing a lot of blood."

Seven minutes later, emergency dispatch called Kalina back.

Dispatcher: "Do you see the chopper overhead?"

Kalina: “I don't see anything."

The calls continued as Kalina watched the chopper descend then ascend.

"I am waving. I am waving," he said. "They are coming toward me!"

The passengers in a Norfolk Southern train fell silent Tuesday morning as the call ended and they slowly came to grips with what they just heard.

They were participating in Operation Lifesaver Whistle-Stop Safety Train outreach effort, created as a partnership between Norfolk Southern and Operation Lifesaver to spread awareness about the dangers of railroad crossings in the state. Several groups were taken on trips in the state as part of the effort.

Kalina, who survived the accident and is now a spokesperson for train safety, shared with those gathered how he was walking home by himself after a night out with friends in October 2012.

As he walked alongside a railroad track, he slipped on gravel and his shirt snagged on a train, which began moving at the same time.

Unable to free himself, Kalina pulled himself onto a ladder on the side of the train and held on for as long as he could until he fell, landing on the connector.

His body was pulled underneath the train and his entire left leg and right leg below the knee were severed as the entire train passed over him.

Statistics reveal that on average, a person or vehicle is hit by a train once every three hours in the United States. The Whistle-Stop Safety Train aimed to give riders a first-hand look at exactly what the engineer and conductor are seeing by way of a high definition camera mounted to the front of the train.

In the city of Orangeburg alone, there have been about 24 reported train vs. vehicle accidents along the stretch of track that runs parallel to Magnolia Street since 2000. There have been five fatalities, according to Federal Rail Administration data.

Accidents have occurred at the train tracks’ intersection with Russell, Whitman, Zan, Peasley, Sellers, Broughton and Glover streets. The administration reports all accidents were caused by driver error.

Earlier this month, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Norfolk Southern by the estate of Ernest Johnson, who was struck by a train at the intersection with John C. Calhoun Drive on the morning of Jan. 9. He later died from his injuries. He was 80.

Train officials have declined comment on the case, noting it does not discuss matters in litigation.

The same intersection was the scene of a major crash on Oct. 15, 2014 when a southbound train smashed into an 18-wheeler, injuring the trucker. The intersection has also seen a number of other collisions over the years.

Orangeburg City Council has been in a long-running dispute with Norfolk Southern over the speed of trains traveling through the city.

As recently as November 2014, council again agreed to ask the railroad to slow down its trains, which can travel as fast as 49 mph. The vehicle speed limits along much of Magnolia Street, which runs parallel to the tracks, is 30 to 35 mph.

A city law limits train speeds to 15 or 20 mph but cannot be enforced because trains are regulated as interstate commerce.

Norfolk Southern officials have argued that faster train speeds are safer because motorists are more likely to take risks when trains are going slower.

"What I have seen is when we reduce the train speeds, we find more people trying to get around the gates to beat the train," Norfolk Southern engineer and Operation Lifesaver volunteer Jeff Smith said Tuesday, noting 49 miles per hour is normal through a town.

"A lot of towns, you will see speeds faster than that,” Smith said.

Smith noted the impact of a freight train on a car is the same as a car on a soda can.

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"Any time is a train time. Always expect a train when you come to a railroad crossing," Smith said. "Trains are always running."

It takes one mile, or 18 football fields, to stop a train safely, he said.

Smith said the most important thing for people to do if their car stalls on a track is to get out.

"When the train collides with the automobile, you want to be away from the debris field. We can replace the vehicle, but we can't replace you or your family,” Smith said.

Branchville Town Councilman Tom Jennings, who both rode the train Tuesday, said an 18-wheeler got clipped at the Ott Street

"Other than that, I don't know of any crossing accidents there since the gates have been up,” he said.

Jennings said even at a slow train speed, motorists are at a severe disadvantage.

"The train is not going to be able to stop on a dime," Jennings said. "If people would just stay off the tracks when the lights are going, I just feel like some common sense will help the situation."

For some, the train trip was not so much about safety but about nostalgia.

Lifelong Branchville resident Marianna Street, 64, had not ridden a train since she was 16 and she traveled from Orangeburg to Michigan to visit family.

"It was exciting," she said. "In third grade we went from Branchville to Orangeburg. That was our third-grade excursion."

Another time, Street recalls “We ate in the dining car and I had a drink in the club car. I had my first Shirley Temple."

For her first train trip in nearly five decades, Street had some simple plans.

"I am just going to look out the window and contemplate life and better times," she said.

Street was not disappointed.

"It was way fun," she said, noting her favorite part of the trip was seeing Branchville residents wave as the train passed by.

"I will do it again."

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Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Staff Writer

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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