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Letter: Survivor of 1982 crossing tragedy: Please don't try it!

This photo, taken on March 15, 1982, shows

This photo, taken on March 15, 1982, shows the grade crossing where nine students were killed a day earlier when their van was hit by a train at Herricks Road in Mineola. Credit: Newsday photo/John H. Cornell Jr

Thirty-seven years ago this month, I was the sole survivor of an accident that killed nine of my friends when our van went around a train crossing gate. I have maintained my privacy since then, but after hearing about Tuesday night’s fatal accident in Westbury, I could no longer remain silent in good conscience.

I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. One day I woke up in a hospital bed with no idea how I got there. I saw my mother sitting nearby and asked her what had happened. She said I had been in an accident. I was riding in a van that was hit by a train at the Herricks Road crossing in Mineola.

Then she told me about all the friends I had lost — nine.

Nine other teens were in the van that night and they all died. The term “sole survivor” still makes me tremble even now at age 54. Authorities said the driver of our van had gone around the lowered crossing gates and we were hit. I remember nothing.

The accident occurred on March 14, 1982. I did not regain awareness until April 30, the day I described above, having been comatose and then semi-conscious.

Parents and other adults, please take a moment and think about what it must have been like for my mother at that time. Just five weeks before the accident, my father, State Sen. John D. Caemmerer, had died of cancer at age 54. Now she was facing new hardship with four other kids at home. It was also quite difficult for my brothers and sisters.

Kids, especially those of you in high school and college, please think about your two or three best friends. Then think about having to go to their wakes and funerals. This is what my friends went through, and it wasn’t two or three, it was nine. Their parents had to bury them! Please know that your parents would be devastated to lose you.

Today, I walk with a limp. Because of injuries to each of my legs, I occasionally fall, so when I leave my home, I have to bring my crutches. Because of damage to my legs and feet,the only footwear I can use is high-top sneakers or low-heeled boots. (Ladies, think about me trying to get dressed for summer events!)

I suffered a great deal of scarring to my face; it took six to eight operations to repair this. I was supposed to have more work done but my plastic surgeon, the only man I trusted to cut open my face, died of cancer at a young age. I will spare you the litany of all of my physical and emotional injuries, but I have been operated on 22 times. I am in moderate pain a lot of time and severe pain the rest of the time. As a result of my injuries, I am unable to work for a living.

If you’re ever tempted to drive around lowered railroad-crossing gates, DON’T. PLEASE. YOU WILL NOT BEAT THE TRAIN. At best, you will be severely physically and emotionally injured. At worst, you will be killed. You will cause your loved ones tremendous pain, and you might cause emotional turmoil, injury and death to riders and employees on the train.

Kathleen T. Caemmerer,

  Williston Park

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