Cleveland High student, killed in train yard accident, mourned by classmates

See what locals say could have prevented the death of this 17-year-old Brooklyn neighborhood resident‚

Portland Police Bureau officers confer with Portland Fire & Rescue Truck 23 firefighters, a Union Pacific security officer, and railroad workers, as they begin to unravel why a 17-year-old high school junior was killed in the Brooklyn train yard.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For several evenings after his sudden death, friends of 17-year-old Christopher John King gathered near the steps of Cleveland High School. They were mourning the loss of, what one student described as “a cool guy”.

Although we wanted to learn more about the young man for whom candlelight vigils are being held at the school where he was a junior classman, we respected his friends’ request to leave the area.

Struck by a boxcar
Around the clock, one can hear railroad engines roar, as rail cars are shuffled into trains, eventually heading north and south, from the Brooklyn Union Pacific train yard.

Minutes after 5 p.m. on June 18, the rail yard goes strangely silent. A teenager is dead; he lays on the switchyard tracks, partially under a boxcar.

“I saw him start into the yard,” a railroad worker tells a Portland Police officer as they stand on the eastern edge of the rail yard, where SE Lafayette St. dead-ends into the train yard, just west of SE 20th Ave. The two are in front of a sagging eight-foot tall chain-link fence has been pried loose from rebar latticework directly under a footbridge that spans the train yard.

“I saw him look like he was going forward, then back and forward. He fell, and I saw dust kick up,” the worker reported.

A worker talks with a Portland Police officer at the hole in the fence officials say teenagers commonly use to cut through the train yard, instead of using the footbridge, directly above it.

Rescue workers powerless
We hike across the footbridge; it provides a panoramic view of the rail yard. On the west side, a firefighter from Portland Fire & Rescue Station 23 walks up to us, and looks over his shoulder at boxcars stopped on the easterly side of yard. “There was nothing we could do; the victim is deceased.”

A Union Pacific security officer approaches us. We ask for a comment; he tells us we’re on private property and politely asks us to leave. Minutes after re-crossing the footbridge, we see three individuals, with grief-stricken expressions, holding hands as they walk unsteadily out of the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood. The trio disappears from sight as they cross the bridge.

Rescue workers say they found the young victim deceased upon their arrival.

Takes a deadly shortcut
It’s common for teens to hike through the train yard‚ instead of using the footbridge‚ officials say.

King lived nearby the Brooklyn train yard, in the 1400 block of SE Rhone Street. By some accounts, some of the friends with whom King was walking chose to climb the steep stairs and to cross the train yard on the footbridge.

“A witness stated that a second teenager was walking westbound through the train yard him at the time the train struck King,” Portland Police Bureau’s Sgt. Brian Schmautz told us. “The train was traveling southbound on the tracks at the time of the collision. The witness stated that their attention was on another train moving through the area.”

It appeared that the deceased may not have heard or seen the train as it approached their location and hit him, Schmautz added.

As a courtesy to Union Pacific, Portland Fire & Rescue team member cordons off the scene of the accident. Union Pacific security officers investigated the death.

Bystander Jack Garrison shakes his head as he watches police officers stretch yellow crime scene tape bounding the east side of the rail yard. He says works for a nearby company. “It seems there must be a way to make the fence more secure here. A hole in the fence is like an invitation to walk on through, instead of taking the bridge.”

Other than expressing sorrow for King’s death, the railroad company has not made public comment on the tragic accident.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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