Joshua Phillips White was passionate about music. The 16-year-old from Cramerton, N.C., played piano and guitar, often memorizing lyrics and guitar licks for Christian rock tunes by listening to his MP3 player with the volume cranked.
"He did listen to it loud, and I got onto him all the time," says his mom, Lorraine White.
On Nov. 10, Joshua apparently was listening as he walked home from South Point High School, including down a stretch of Norfolk Southern Railway track. Cramerton police reported there was no indication that the teen "was ever aware the train was approaching him from behind."
"The engineer sounded the train's horn and bell repeatedly. According to his account, [Joshua] never wavered in his walk," Cramerton Police Chief Greg Ratchford wrote in an e-mail to NPR shortly after the incident. In a subsequent phone conversation, he said he was confident that the teen's death was unintentional. "It was as if he was oblivious that the train was coming."
Joshua died instantly, his mother says authorities told her, and that gives her some small comfort. But she torments herself about what she might have done to prevent his death.
"I know they were loud," White says of MP3 players, which can rival train horns in terms of decibel levels. "I didn't know they were that loud."
Trouble On The Tracks
The maximum volume of some MP3 players can exceed 115 decibels, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. A train's horn ranges from 96 to 110 decibels, measured 100 feet in front of the locomotive, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Trains are quieter now than they were a decade ago, says FRA spokesman Robert Kulat. Engines have been retooled, he says, and continuously welded tracks have eliminated the once-familiar "clickety-clack" of trains running over tracks. "So if someone did have on headphones or a cell phone, it would be very hard to hear."
Avoiding an oblivious pedestrian is difficult. A mile-long train traveling at 50 mph takes almost a mile to stop, Kulat says.
The FRA says that trespassing along railroad yards, tracks and rights of way — which are private — is the No. 1 cause of death in the railroad industry.
Each year in the United States, roughly 500 pedestrians die as a result of trespassing on railroad property, Kulat says.
As for the dangers faced by pedestrians outfitted with cell phones or iPods — so-called "podestrians" — "we have been aware of this problem for several years," says Marmie Edwards, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Operation Lifesaver, which leads efforts to raise awareness about railroad hazards.
"The problem is trying to reach the audience that may be walking on the tracks. We would like to know exactly how many people have earphones on," she says, appealing for data.
White says she understands how her son could get distracted by wearing headphones. "I've even walked around the block with the iPod on, and you do get in that zone," she says. "You don't realize what's going on around you."
For Joshua, hearing issues may have compounded the problem. White had taken him in for a physical in late summer to address sinus difficulties, and he complained to the doctor about a ringing in his ear, she says. "That was the first I heard about it."
White says her son subsequently had a CAT scan and MRI screening that ruled out other medical conditions that might have caused the ringing. She adds that, on the day Joshua died, she'd planned to make him an appointment with an audiologist.
The railroad tracks lie about half a mile from the White family's home, and "we can hear that train whistle," White says. It's a painful reminder of loss.
Thomas White says their son knew "knew not to walk on the tracks. ... From the way I look at it, God orchestrated it. It was his time to go. ... It's not like we don't feel like crying."
His wife notes that "kids just don't realize the danger" those tracks represent.
"The earphones — they should not be louder than a train," she says. "Somebody needs to step in and cap off the volume on these things."
White already has been in contact with the FRA and Operation Lifesaver about efforts to encourage slowing trains as they pass through communities and to seek more prominent no-trespassing signs for railroads. She says it wasn't until she and her husband visited the site where Joshua was killed that they learned they were trespassing on private property.
"Joshua had such a big heart" and concern for others, White says, that she feels compelled to act on his behalf. "I'm ready to step up and help others not to have to go through what we have."
The Whites have a younger son and daughter, Aaron, 12, and Erica, 11. Aaron likes to listen to music on his headphones. That's fine in a safe place, White says. But "as far as him walking out the door with it, I'm not going to allow it."