On the night of December 20, 1959 – fifty years ago today -- I was sitting in the left front seat of the Vista-Dome car of the Burlington Zephyr passenger train as it hurtled through northern Illinois on its way from Chicago toward my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The engineer would later tell a coroner’s jury that he was going 90 miles an hour (legal at the time) as we rounded a gentle curve at the tiny town of Chadwick.
From my vantage point in the darkened dome car near the front of the train, I could see the locomotive’s searchlight slice through the darkness, sweeping the tracks that stretched ahead of us. Suddenly, off to my left, I saw a car speeding toward a crossing we were approaching. The car looked like a 1949 Chevy, distinctive because of its sloped rear end. A split second later, I lost sight of the car as it went in front of the train.
I heard a bang, the train shuddered, and debris rained onto the Plexiglas dome, cracking the window I’d been peering through. I ducked, then scrambled down the narrow stairway to the dome car’s lower level where I told my dad and the conductor what I’d just witnessed.
I was nine years old.
Eventually, the train came to a stop at least a mile down the tracks. My dad got off to investigate, but I didn’t want to see the carnage, so I stayed behind, shivering in a frigid vestibule and looking out the open door as Dad made his way to the front of the train.
An ambulance silently passed by, red lights flashing, a shrouded figure stretched out in back. I would meet the ambulance driver, Bob Helms, years later at a book signing in Chadwick. Tears welled in his eyes as he told me about that night in 1959 when he helped retrieve the mangled bodies of the three people whose lives ended so suddenly and brutally.
The crash killed Eugene Kutzke, 22; his wife Ellen, 17; and her brother, Raymond Stage, 11 – all of Freeport, Illinois. Earlier in the day, they’d been in Dubuque, Iowa and were returning to Freeport in a borrowed car.
I remember being particularly troubled that a boy about my age was among the victims.
The coroner’s jury ruled the crash an accident. The car came from the West and made a sharp left turn just before the grade crossing. Several buildings on the right side of the car would have obscured the driver’s view of the tracks, which crossed the road at a slightly oblique angle. The speeding train was coming from the right. Even if the driver saw the train – which I doubt -- he wouldn’t have had time to react.
After my dad returned from his foray to the front of the train, we went to the club car and sat with several other people who listened as we recounted our stories. A woman told me she lived nearby and would send me a newspaper clipping with details of the crash. Thirty-five years later, it still hadn’t arrived.
Fast forward to about 1994. I was doing a writing exercise recounting a personal experience – the one you’ve just read. As I wrote, I remembered a radio news report about a car-train collision in which an infant survived. I began wondering what if an infant had survived the crash I’d witnessed and grew up wondering about her past. That idea turned into my mystery-suspense novel “Fast Track.”
The novel isn’t about the accident. If anything, it’s an example of how a personal experience can be the seed of an idea that can blossom into something else – something redeeming.
The book begins with my 25-year-old heroine vexed because she doesn’t know what to do with her life. She discovers the body of the aunt who raised her from infancy – a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. (This is an echo of my sister’s suicide in 1980 – but that’s another story for another time.) That trauma begins a quest to unlock secrets kept hidden for a quarter century when her parents died in a mysterious car-train collision.
The manuscript went through 14 major revisions over 10 years before I found my current agent, Barbara Casey, (the 39th agent I queried). During that process, I drew on other personal experiences to add texture to a story that includes politics, journalism, and mentoring relationships.
But it all started 50 years ago today in Chadwick, Illinois. So, I suppose it’s fitting that I named my heroine Lark Chadwick.
John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" and the author of the mystery-suspense novel "Fast Track."