Tank cars halt kids on their way home from school on a recent day.
Tank cars halt kids on their way home from school on a recent day.
Deron Neblett

Perilous Paths

Nine-year-old Christopher Solomon grew up around the Union Pacific tracks that crisscross his Fifth Ward neighborhood. Maps show the lines like baseball stitching running to and from the massive rail yard that spreads out beyond Lockwood, half a mile east of the Waco Street overpass. Another track arcs south just beyond Waco, forming a perimeter of sorts between Christopher's home and his third-grade classes at nearby E.O. Smith Education Center.

Christopher's mother, Betty Ross, tried to minimize the train hazards by walking Christopher and his younger brother Richard to school. But on April 25, she hurriedly prepared for a doctor's appointment and the children set out on their own before 7 a.m.

The boys met up with friends Markeisa and Asphanie Dixon and stopped to play at a park near Lyons Avenue. Christopher, anxious about being late, left with the girls, while his brother stayed behind. He took the shortest route to Smith, straight down the railroad tracks. There was no adult on hand to steer him back onto the streets, no crossing guard and no fence to block access to the tracks.

While he was walking the tracks, Christopher's shoe got caught between the ties. As he wrestled to free his foot, a freight train suddenly began to bear down on him.

"I think the train was just coming so fast that it just rolled over his foot," his mother says. Christopher screamed. Asphanie ran up, knelt next to the injured boy and prayed with him. He was in the gravel just to the side of the tracks, his left foot nearly severed, hanging by a tendon. Markeisa ran to get help from a nearby fire station.

"The train did not stop at all. It was gone when I got there," says Carrie Wiley, Smith's assistant principal. "The train didn't know they had hit the little boy until somebody had called them at the train yard…"

Meanwhile, Ross was halted as she was about to leave for the doctor's office. A fire department supervisor rushed her and son Richard to the hospital. After Christopher's surgery, doctors told her the results:

"They couldn't save none of his foot," Ross says. "It's gone all the way up to the knee."

The accident revived a long-standing issue in this community just northeast of U.S. 59 and Interstate 10. Barbara Mathis, mother of an E.O. Smith student, remembers a classmate injured by a train when she was a student there in the early 1980s. Principal Michael Bledsoe says there was a similar accident when he first arrived at the school five years ago, and that trains have been a continual problem.

Additional crossing guards were added the day after Christopher's injury. City Councilwoman Carol Mims Galloway, in her sophomore term as the District B representative, is pressing the fight for track safety on two fronts. She's asked her ally, Mayor Lee Brown, for an analysis of the cost to construct elevated crosswalks over the tracks where they intersect with Hailey, Gregg and Bringhurst streets.

Galloway also wants the city to attack the problem of idled -- rather than moving -- trains. Many of them are so long that when the engine arrives in the rail yard near Lockwood, the cars are backed up through the street intersections, effectively cutting off auto and pedestrian traffic through the neighborhood.

Those on foot -- include some of the 650 E.O. Smith students -- may roll under the rail cars or, for the taller kids, hop over the couplings between the cars. "I don't even have a tardy policy in the morning simply because I don't want those kids to feel they have to rush to school when there is a train across the tracks," says Bledsoe.

Houston's supposed solution to trains that block streets is an ordinance requiring them to move within 15 minutes. But there is no specified distance, so a few feet of movement forward or backward keeps the trains in compliance even if it means an intersection is blocked for hours.

Galloway initially proposed changing the law to force the trains to move at least a mile. A week later, she reduced that proposal to 1,000 feet, about a fifth of a mile, which she believes would be adequate.

Brown referred her request for a pedestrian-bridge cost estimate to the public works department. The councilwoman estimates that the three-bridge plan could range as high as $1 million and says that such a project would likely fall into the capital improvements plan. That would mean it would not be started for three or four years, or longer. Galloway has kept Christopher's mother informed of the plans, but Ross voices some skepticism about construction. "I'll believe it when I see it," she says.

That attitude is apparently justified. Public works spokesman Wes Johnson explains that the considerable funds needed for an elevated crosswalk are just not in the current capital projects budget, and the proposal "is simply not cost- effective at this point."

Union Pacific has not offered funding for the bridges, Galloway says, and the company did not return phone calls from the Houston Press. The councilwoman says Union Pacific believes it contributes to the community through the Operation Life Saver program, in which train employees lecture students about railroad dangers. Bledsoe says the company also stated it would not be possible to change train schedules to minimize activity at times when students are concentrated in the area.

Galloway says Union Pacific voiced concerns about liability in any pedestrian bridge project, raising the example of gang members who could trap and injure someone on such an overpass.

Kenneth Johns, director of crossing guards for HISD police, says legal concerns about an elevated cross- walk would not appear to be any different from those on the street. He thinks "the main thing is the safety of the children."

Liability questions also have arisen over an offer by Zachary Construction to donate the planning and labor to build one of the bridges. And some in the neighborhood doubt the effectiveness of overpass walkways for a community long accustomed to heading down the tracks.

Even the brutal lesson of Christopher Solomon seems forgotten only days after the accident. On a recent morning, three preteens -- two boys and a girl -- emerged from Harriman Street and headed straight to the tracks. The kids tried to explain to a stranger that they were just taking the shortcut because they were running late to school. Soon after the three departed from the rails, a train rushed through. Ten minutes later, another line of freight cars slowed to a stop and remained motionless for nearly an hour.

Aggie Mathews, part of the beefed-up crossing-guard effort in the area, watched with disgust at the three kids on the tracks.

"They'll put a million or so dollars into that crosswalk for these children, and they'll still walk out here in the way," says Mathews, a retiree and 11-year crossing guard. "What they need here is discipline in the school there. Discipline, old-fashioned discipline."

Christopher himself will likely not be around next year as a reminder for his classmates. He'll soon be out of the hospital and will begin therapy with an artificial limb. His final few weeks of this school year will be spent in an HISD homeschooling program.

His mother, who suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and depression, says she hopes to relocate the family to another area, in a neighborhood far away from the railroads.

"My son's life is ruined," Ross says. "Not only physically, but mentally, too. He's saying he's afraid to come home and face his friends because he's afraid they're going to laugh at him. I asked him if he wanted to move, and he said, 'Yes, ma'am, but nowhere by no track.' He don't want to live by no tracks."


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