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Lone survivor of worst grade-crossing crash in LIRR history breaks silence

The front page of Newsday on March 15,

The front page of Newsday on March 15, 1982. Credit: Newsday

Kathleen Caemmerer doesn't like to think about that night, on a brisk Sunday in March, when her life was shattered by a split-second decision to beat a train. But the scarring on her face and her limp never let her forget it. 

The crash is a blank. Nothing. What she knows, she read somewhere.

Ten friends in a van coming home from a party. The driver going around the flashing railroad crossing gate. The LIRR train plowing into the van, pushing it the length of a football field down an electrified track. All of her friends gone in a heartbeat.

She was the only one in the van to live through the worst grade-crossing crash in Long Island history. The crossing was labeled the nation's most dangerous by the National Transportation Safety Board because of its overwhelmingly heavy traffic. 

"People see me as the lone survivor; a miracle girl," Caemmerer of Williston Park said in her first interview about the crash. "But now almost 40 years later, I can't put my foot down in the driveway with full force. I'm in pain 24/7. It's never gone."

And there are days that she can't help but think about the crash. 

On Tuesday, Caemmerer turned on the late news. The top story — three dead in a car-train crash — sent a chill through her.

An SUV went around a railroad crossing in Westbury, hit twice — first by a slow-moving train going east, then by a westbound train moving at full speed. Everyone in the SUV died; eight passengers on the westbound train were hurt.

"I remember screaming, 'Not again. Not again,'" said the 54-year-old Caemmerer, her voice cracking. "When will they learn?"

The crash was as familiar as it was terrifying. 

On Sunday, March 14, 1982, Caemmerer and nine friends she had known since childhood packed into a cream-colored Ford Econoline van after a party at one friend's home in Mineola. It was shortly after 2 a.m.

The driver, who had been drinking, was heading south on Herricks Road in Mineola when he threaded around a flashing crossing gate. The engineer of a Port Jefferson-bound LIRR train, cruising at 65 miles an hour, hit the brakes. 

The impact sheared a rear wheel from the train's axle and hurled the van 150 yards down the tracks, where it came to rest on an embankment on the north side of the tracks. Caemmerer and seven others were thrown from the van, which caught fire. Two friends were trapped inside.

Caemmerer was 17 and just months away from getting her high school diploma from Our Lady of Mercy Academy. A few weeks earlier, her father, Republican State Sen. John Caemmerer, had died of cancer. 

For six weeks, Caemmerer didn't know what was going on around her at Winthrop Hospital in Mineola. She was comatose, then semiconscious. She had a massive skull fracture, a fracture to her left femur, a broken right ankle, nerve damage to her legs and feet, and scarring to her head and neck. 

Her mother, Joan, divided her time between keeping watch over Caemmerer and taking care of her other four kids — two girls and two boys. 

Caemmerer recalls waking up on April 30 but has no recollection of the crash, or the days before. 

"I remember nothing," Caemmerer said. "I've tried. But it's not a useful exercise to try and remember."

Caemmerer has lived with chronic pain the past 37 years. In all, she has had 22 surgeries. A decade ago, sudden falls forced her to stop working as a secretary. She still uses crutches today.

And there is the psychological burden. Why had she been the one to survive? It's a question she can't answer.

"I've never felt like a victim," she said. "It's just a part of my life. It's always there. I can't ever forget."

Robert Lindon lost his daughter, Stacie, 19, a freshman at Greensboro College in North Carolina. He tries not to dwell on the crash and all its horrific details.

"But then another person crosses onto the tracks and it all comes rushing back," said Lindon, 90, who now lives in Palm Beach, Florida. 

Lindon holds no grudge against Caemmerer, whom he has never met. 

"I'm happy anybody survived," he said. "I am not jealous that she survived and my daughter did not. I feel sorry for everyone involved."

Lindon and his wife, Joan, successfully lobbied to have the Herricks grade crossing replaced with a railroad bridge. The $85 million project was completed in 1998 — 16 years after the crash.

Caemmerer has tried to put those painful memories in the past. But Tuesday's crash compelled her to remind the public of the high price of impatience. 

"People have forgotten what happened to me in 1982," Caemmerer said. "But I don't want this to ever happen to another person. Please. Please. Don't play chicken with a train. You are not going to win."

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