Community comes together to learn, begin to heal

By on July 18, 2014

MAPLE PARK—Parents and young people from Maple Park came together on July 9 at the local Civic Center for an informational session on train safety. Many in the community have been impacted by the recent death of Parker Wolfsmith, a Maple Park teen who was killed by a train on May 31.

Maple Park Police Chief Mike Acosta scheduled the presentation by Union Pacific officials to provide community members with information that he hopes will prevent another young person’s life from being taken by a train.

Wolfsmith, a 14-year-old Harter Middle School student, was struck by a train traveling through Maple Park while he was engaging in a practice called “breezing,” in which the individual tries to get close to a passing train to feel the wind and the power from the train.

“Trains can’t swerve, and they can’t stop,” Union Pacific special agent Jim Mangner told the group gathered for the meeting. “But the good news is that they can’t hurt you unless you’re on or near the tracks.”

Manger said that it takes the length of three football fields (300 yards, or 900 feet) for a train to stop. He added that the heavier and the longer the train, the longer it takes it to stop.

“The inability for people to perceive just how fast a train is traveling is probably the most dangerous thing,” he said.

He explained that when people see a train approaching from a distance, it can seem like it will take a long time for it to get to the crossing, and that you might have time to cross before it gets there.

“They go a lot faster than you think—60 or 70 miles an hour—that’s more than a mile a minute.”

He said that videos on the Internet of people trying out risky actions near trains don’t take into account differences between trains in the U.S. and those in Europe. He described one in which a train rolled over a person laying on the tracks without touching him, and noted that European trains are higher off the tracks than ours.

He also explained that stunts in movies don’t portray how dangerous trains can be.

“A lot of things you see in the media only happen in the media,” he said.

At the end of the presentation, Acosta said that he hoped everyone who came that night would go out and spread the message.

“Stay away from the train and the tracks,” he said. “If you hear somebody talking about it, let an adult know. Your parents want to see you reach old age.”

After the meeting, Maple Park police officer Tony Ayala said he thought the Union Pacific people “did a great job,” and that there were “great questions” from the people in the community.

“They were really focused on the right things,” he said.

Acosta said that when police officers such as Ayala have to deal with the death of a young person, it affects them.

“If we can save one kid from being hurt, then we’ve done our job,” Acosta said.

Several friends of Wolfsmith’s said they were glad to see so many people from the community at the session.

“I was kinda glad that kids of all ages came, because it could happen to anyone,” 13-year-old Max Bohm said. “I never thought anyone would get hurt.”

Chaz Garcia, 14, said it was a lesson that everyone should learn.

“Trains are really dangerous,” he said. “The teachers tried to tell us. We should’ve listened.”

Wolfsmith’s mother, Amy Opfer, and his sister, Summer, both of whom live in McHenry, were among those at the meeting.

“It was good for the community; good for the kids and Parker’s mother,” Acosta said. “She needs to heal, too.”

Acosta said that after the meeting, Parker’s mother sat down and talked with some of his friends. They talked about that night, and about some of the friendships that Parker had in town.

“It opened her up to some friends Parker had that she wasn’t aware of,” he said. “It was a good, healing time for all of them.”