Residents of Palo Alto, Calif., are in mourning. Within the past six months, four students from the same local high school have killed themselves. Now, volunteers — some parents, some not — are maintaining a safety watch, trying to prevent another tragedy.
Twice each hour, the same routine takes place at a busy railroad crossing that runs through a residential Palo Alto neighborhood. First the warning bell sounds, as the crossing gates lower to block access to the tracks.
Twenty feet away, parents huddled along a chain-link fence freeze, midsentence, and look down the tracks toward the approaching headlights. They watch as the massive silver commuter train bears down and then hurtles through the crossing.
And then, just like that, the train is gone. The gates go up again, faces relax, and the adults resume their quiet conversations.
A Community Comes Together
"We're out here to show the community and the kids that we care about them and that we want the misuse of the tracks to stop," said Caroline Camhy. The mother of two small children, Camhy started the Track Watch days after the last suicide occurred at this spot a month ago. As school and city officials agonized and conferred, she and other volunteers felt compelled to act.
"We want the deaths to stop, and we want people to know that if they just open their hearts and look around them, they'll find people who care," said Camhy. She added, "We're not the only ones."
Paul Gregg, who lives a quarter-mile from the tracks, has two children who graduated from Palo Alto schools. He has been coming to the crossing regularly since the watch began.
"An hour or two of my time every day is a small price to pay to keep anything from happening at this intersection," Gregg said.
More than 70 volunteers have completed at least one shift since Track Watch began. They arrive in down jackets and knit caps, and set up camp chairs and share a thermos of coffee.
Marie Elena Mendoza said she sleeps better if she stays until 1 a.m. "This way, I'm sure. One o'clock is the last train. I can go home and rest completely, knowing that there will be no more trains."
Mendoza has both a sophomore and a senior at the local high school. Two of the teens who died here were her son's classmates. He said that each time, counselors came to his class and said they had bad news. They never named the students, but everyone could see their empty chairs.
"It is just not right that it is happening, that our kids are being put through so much," said Mendoza. "They're just getting better from one and boom, again, and boom, again, and they just can't survive like that."
Mendoza is sure her son has been affected by the deaths, even if he does not talk about them.
Keeping Teens Safe
There are no shrines erected here, no memorials to the four dead teenagers. No one wants to romanticize what happened. In fact, no one even uses the "S" word, instead referring to "the incidents," or "the misuse of the tracks." The volunteers fear saying anything that could encourage another copycat.
As the night wears on, people wave from passing cars or roll down their windows to yell out their thanks. A local pizzeria owner drops off a free pie. And sometimes the Track Watchers have visitors.
One night, paramedics Hugo Godoy and Steve Lindsay with the Palo Alto Fire Department stop by to say hello and ask the volunteers if they need anything. The city is providing 100 reflective safety vests for the volunteers to wear. And after months of delay, the police department recently hired professional security guards to patrol one site along the tracks.
But the Track Watchers want more safety features, especially better lighting along the darkest stretches of the rail corridor. In the meantime, they will continue to guard this area; but for how long?
"As long as it takes," said one.
"As long as I'm asked to come out, I'll come out," said Gregg. "We want to make sure that nothing ever happens here again."
Parents say it will be a long time before the memory of what has happened begins to fade. They want troubled teens to know they can find answers, but not out here.