A beautiful, young life was senselessly cut short last Friday. Here in the town where I live, Navasota, Tx, 19 year old, Fredzania 'Zanie' Thompson was killed when she stepped in the path of an oncoming train during a photo shoot.
The first thing most people think when they hear about an accident like this is, how is that possible, didn’t they hear the train coming? According to Operation Lifesaver (oli.org), a person or a vehicle is struck by a train roughly every 3 hours here in the US. Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it's foolishness, sometimes a stall, sometimes carelessness, but trains move fast and some models have gotten a lot quieter in recent years, so no, they aren’t always heard.
In this case though, yes, she did hear it, but the problem in this instance was that there were 2 sets of tracks… and 2 trains. The trains were traveling in different directions, coming toward each other and Fredzania, who was between them facing toward one of them. The train saw her, sounded its whistle, and began to employ stopping procedures, which you might imagine would add more noise. Some trains can go in excess of 100 mph, this one was estimated to be going roughly 50 mph. A train going 50 mph takes approximately one full mile to come to a complete stop. A mile they did not have. She saw and heard the train that was coming toward her from the direction she was looking, I can only imagine she assumed all the noise she heard was coming from that train. Seeing that train coming, she stepped out of its path… and right into the path of the other train. She apparently never knew there was a second train coming.
The news reports said she was on a photoshoot with a “photographer”. Now I don’t know if this was a professional photographer, or just someone with a nice camera who was claiming to be a photographer, but that is what they called themselves and therefore the onus was on them, the "photographer", to know that shooting on railroads tracks is not just reckless, but ILLEGAL! As a professional photographer, it is my responsibility to educate my clients on the legalities and potential dangers of something they might suggest. Fines can rack up in the tens of thousands of dollars per person! But more than the financial risk is the risk of someone’s life, someone like Fredzania. She was young, intelligent, beautiful, loved, engaged, pregnant, she had her whole life ahead of her. She died because the “professional” she trusted didn’t do their job.
This is yet another reason why it's important to hire a professional rather than trust your photo shoot to an amateur. I have a ‘Guide to Hiring a Photographer’ available for download on my website. There are many helpful tips and important questions to ask like, “what type of photography do they specialize in?”, or “are they insured?”, it never occurred to me to list, “do they know better than to do something illegal on my shoot?” Not knowing that it's illegal is no excuse. If they’re a professional, it’s their job to know!
The repercussions of that ‘mistake’ are far reaching. A young woman lost her life. A mother lost her daughter. A young man lost his fiancé, their unborn child, and the future he had envisioned. The train engineer and crew wind up being ‘first responders’ to the tragedy and then, once the police arrive, do their investigation, and then finally clear the scene, well then the rail crew has to just go back to work and continue on to their destination. I don’t know what you do for a living, but if you were headed back to work after lunch and someone stepped in front of your car and you accidentally killed them, would you be in any shape to just ‘go back to work’? They have no choice. Then there is the “photographer”, who may now be facing criminal charges.
As a photographer, I love my clients and I will do everything within my power to give them exactly what they want and the most amazing sessions I can create for them. But rest assured, if you ask for a train tracks session, you will be denied. If you demand one, you will be fired. I will not put your life or my business in harm’s way. Part of my brand message is #youareworthit and I believe that, you are worth more than taking senseless risks. You are worth it, Fredzania was worth it, getting a cheesey, cliché photograph on railroad tracks… so not worth it.
Hire a professional, be safe, and if you're the praying kind, pray for Fredzania's family.