This story originally appeared in our December 2012 issue.
The train that killed DeKai Amonrasi no longer exists. CSX Q612 out of New Orleans met its end at Tilford Rail Yard near Marietta Boulevard, a few miles west of Berkeley Heights on Atlanta’s west side. There its 120 cars—hauling refrigerators, automobiles, and sheet metal—were decoupled and classified by destination, 9,000 tons of metal and merchandise broken up and blended with that from dozens of other incoming rail cars. These new trains were bound for hubs like Charlotte, Chicago, and New York, where their payloads were delivered, the empty boxcars and hoppers eventually joining a new line. As you read this, the pieces of deceased donor Q612 are vital organs in dozens of trains across the continent.
Locomotive 9043, the blue-and-yellow, diesel-powered leader of Q612, re-fueled and moved on as well. Pulling its newest charge, 9043 is barely distinguishable from its fellow engines running along the 140,000 miles of rail sewn through U.S. cities and towns and the vast countryside that lies between them. Its shrill horn blasts through every crossing, briefly alerting the world to its presence and warning anything that might stand in its way.
Freight trains don’t run on tight schedules. The speeds of diesel locomotives like 9043 vary between 10 and 50 miles per hour, depending on track conditions and load weight. It is almost impossible to know exactly when the train is coming—at least in time to do anything about it. In Georgia, where there are more than 4,800 miles of active track, the sight of a train is commonplace. People busy on their own courses hardly take note. But the train is always coming. In ice, snow, wind, or rain. And by the time you hear the horn, it’s too late.
Herbert Sinkfield slides gingerly off the bed and into his slippers in the back bedroom of his house. The wooden cane he reaches for could be expected for an eighty-two-year-old retired bricklayer, especially one with bone cancer in his hip. But Herbert never needed it before the accident.
The slender man settles into an armchair by the open front door, where a rattling box fan tries to stir the thick air on a mid-90-degree August afternoon. The hair on Herbert’s head is whiter than his undershirt. His slacks are unbuttoned, half zipped, revealing plaid pajama bottoms that also protrude from beneath his pant legs. It’s 2 p.m.
On the couch across the room sits Herbert’s third wife, Emma, and his daughter from his first marriage, Carolyn. He has nine children, but he has drifted from some of them and, in turn, from their children—a regret that has grown with the passing years.
Still, Herbert brightens as he recounts his life growing up in Union City and Red Oak, towns on the old Atlanta & West Point Railroad line southwest of the city. The piercing call of a train’s horn was ubiquitous in the background of his earliest recollections, as were the stern warnings of his grandmother never to play near the tracks. As a young man, he played baseball and frequented the halls and clubs of neighboring towns, dancing with whichever girl would take his hand. He left with a few of them, including two he would end up marrying. He laid brick and poured concrete for thirty years and retired in his sixties, content to live out his days fishing, hunting, and working in his beloved garden.
One day this past summer, he was driving his gold Dodge Caravan west on Highway 29 toward his Fairburn home, on the way to check on his garden. He remembers passing the airport and crossing I-285 along the east-west railway, where traffic races the trains that seem to come through every five minutes. He passed Welcome All Road, just below South Fulton Parkway, half a mile from the northbound CSX tracks. Then darkness. When Herbert came to, the world had turned on its side. Arms were reaching through the shattered windshield, voices asking what had happened. When one of the strangers unfastened Herbert’s seat belt, he still could not move. His leg was pinned in the wreck beneath the mangled steering wheel. Then a distant rumble. Metal brakes screamed and the blast of a train horn filled the narrow gulch. The strangers scattered. The horn grew louder, and the ground began to shake.
Leaning forward on the cane, Herbert looks down at the floor. He says he’s sorry. That he feels bad. But his guilt seems ill-defined. What could he have done? The doctors never found an explanation for the blackout behind the wheel. Besides, he never asked to be rescued. It wasn’t until an hour after the accident, after he had been helicoptered to Grady Hospital, that Herbert learned about the man who had died trying to save his life.
The casket is open. Here, alone at the front of the empty chapel on the campus of World Changers Church International in College Park, lie the remains of DeKai Amonrasi. His face is full and round, a thin mustache trimmed neatly above his lip. His black hair is clipped tight.
As 11 a.m. approaches, men in crisp suits and women in vibrant dresses and hats gradually begin to file in, most walking down the sloped aisle to view the body. There’s his mother, Fonseca Richards, who remembers Rohan Mark Young, the name she gave DeKai when he was born in Kingston, Jamaica, forty-eight years ago; she also remembers him as the thirteen-year-old who moved with her to Atlanta by way of Brooklyn and looked after his younger brother and sister in their Westside apartment while his single mother worked. A few mourners may have met him in Long Beach, California, where he moved right after graduating from Georgia State in 1989 to work as an airplane mechanic for McDonnell Douglas. The impulsive young man who celebrated his birthday every six months—why wait?—by skydiving, flying to Rio, or taking friends out in a rented limo for a $400 dinner in Beverly Hills. Whose island accent thickened as he explored his Caribbean and African heritage. Who wore dashikis and eventually changed his name, combining words from various African dialects to come up with DeKai Abushani Amonrasi. And then there are the youngest mourners—nieces and nephews who got to know Uncle DeKai better after a recession layoff drove him back to Georgia, a man in his forties forced to move in with his mother. The man who remembered every birthday with a card and a check. Who rewarded good report cards—$3 for an A, $2 for a B—and doted on his young relatives while waiting patiently himself to meet that perfect woman who would give him a family of his own.