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The Crossing

Herbert Sinkfield and DeKai Amonrasi were born thirty-four years and a thousand miles apart. But when an accident brought them together on the railroad tracks in College Park, one of the men made a fateful decision.

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.

August 23

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.

August 7

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. The service begins. The ministers preach of the soul’s resurrection, clap and sing along to “I Live to Glorify You” and other songs about the spirit and its return to Heaven. They work hard to lift the occasion, to lead a celebration—a “Homegoing Service,” as it is billed on the trifold programs. People who knew DeKai, and some who didn’t, talk about his compassion, his good deeds, particularly his last act, trying to save one of God’s children. This is a hero’s send-off.

But the mood in the chapel is not joyous. Nor is it altogether sorrowful. The blank faces of many of DeKai’s family are looks of disbelief, of not yet grasping that their son and brother is gone—and it’s not just the typical shock that greets news of a sudden death. It is the nature of that death that bewilders them. The survivors don’t question DeKai’s compassion, but they grapple with his logic. Herbert Sinkfield was an old man. He had lived his life. DeKai had so much in front of him. He had finally found another job—on a factory floor making car seats—that paid enough for him to move out of his mother’s Fairburn house to an apartment closer to work. He was saving every spare penny, slowly getting back on his feet. And after twenty years of living 2,000 miles away, DeKai was finally home. He obsessed over taking pictures and recording family reunions, parties, even the most ordinary get-togethers—as if trying to capture enough memories to make up for those he had missed.

July 31—Approximately 12:40 p.m.

As DeKai’s black 1993 Lexus approaches the overpass, the gold Caravan in front of him suddenly veers to the right, its left front bumper barely clipping the tip of the guardrail. The van disappears down into the steep gulch—witnesses would later say its brake lights never flashed.

DeKai pulls his car to the side of the road, runs to the overpass, and peers over the waist-high concrete barrier to see debris—plastic buckets, an ironing board, a red Playmate cooler—scattered around the crumpled Caravan, which has overturned and come to rest across the tracks on its driver’s side, roof just inches from the rail, some thirty feet below. Within minutes, the five-foot-six-inch man with the paunch leads fellow onlookers Sherees Williams and Briana Rainey down the steep and overgrown embankment.

The driver, an elderly man, is conscious. He says he is okay. DeKai reaches through the broken windshield to unfasten the seat belt buckle, but the driver’s leg is pinned. As the witnesses discuss what to do, a rumble rises from the south. Through the narrow tunnel running beneath Highway 29, a locomotive roars around the bend, its triangle of headlights turning toward the van, coming on the scene at about 25 miles per hour. Brakes squeal, but there is no stopping the train in time. The horn sounds. The witnesses scatter; two scurry up the west bank behind the van, while DeKai positions himself safely on the east side of the tracks. But what he does next shocks the other good Samaritans. With the slowing locomotive just a few yards away, DeKai dashes for the van on the other side of the tracks.

What is he thinking? The van is close to the rail—does DeKai fear the train is going to hit it, killing the old man trapped inside? But even then, what does DeKai think he can do?

Surely DeKai believes he will make it safely across. After all, with the train still a few dozen yards away, 25 miles per hour may not seem that fast. The brakes have been applied. How can DeKai know that a train that size at that speed will take a mile to stop?

But as he runs for the van, with 9,000 tons of shrieking steel bearing down, DeKai trips. He falls forward onto the tracks. As he tries to get up, the train strikes him, dragging him for some thirty feet before throwing him onto the west bank. Rescuers will find his severed legs farther down the tracks. Covered in blood, he asks the others to turn him over on his back so he can breathe better. An onlooker obliges, while Rainey holds DeKai’s head in her lap and prays aloud with him until the paramedics arrive.

The train comes to a halt almost a mile up the line. The engineer tells Fulton County police that he isn’t sure what the train hit, if anything. Perched in the cab atop 9043, the locomotive’s two-man crew can’t see the few feet directly ahead, their view blocked by the nose of the train. If the train didn’t graze Herbert’s van, it missed by inches. When the paramedics arrive, Herbert is cut from the Dodge and airlifted to Grady Hospital, where he is treated for four cracked ribs and some minor cuts and bruises.

Meanwhile, in the same building at 1:46 p.m., DeKai dies of blood loss.

July 31—8 a.m.

it’s Tuesday—what promises to be just another summer day for an old retiree. Herbert washes up and gets dressed. He skips breakfast; he doesn’t like to eat early in the morning.

Around 10 a.m., Herbert walks to his Dodge Caravan and drives to the South Fulton Medical Center in East Point. At 10:15, he has blood drawn and tested for signs of further remission of the bone cancer in his hip. At noon he visits his cardiologist for his regular checkup. By 12:30 Herbert is back in the Caravan, heading west on Highway 29 toward Fairburn and his garden. The collards need tending.

Somewhere behind the gold van, DeKai’s black Lexus is making its way down the same stretch of road. DeKai would normally be heading east, on his way to work in Lithonia. But today he is driving west. His mother will surmise this from the voter registration card the police will give her as part of DeKai’s personal effects. It’s Election Day, and DeKai is still registered at his mother’s address, assigned to the polls in College Park. He doesn’t mind the detour. Voting is important to him.

July 31—7 a.m.

There is morning fog when 9043 leaves Montgomery.

The train was formed in New Orleans yesterday, and its course has run east through the low marshlands skirting the Gulf of Mexico into Mobile. In Montgomery the train welcomed two new crewmen and is now pulling out in its final constitution—120 cars and a payload of almost 9,000 tons—bound for Atlanta.

The approach from the hills in the west to Georgia’s capital takes 9043 through a string of old railroad towns. Palmetto. Fairburn. College Park. Communities where the track runs side by side with lamp-lined thoroughfares, past storefronts and squares and ancient depots out to industrial outskirts, factories, and quarries fenced in tall chain link. The train’s horn blares at every crossing.

At 12:38 p.m., just outside of Fairburn, 9043’s triangle of headlights comes into view against an overcast sky. Sliding northeast at about 50 miles per hour over a straight stretch of track, the train approaches. The low hum of traffic on 29 is overwhelmed by the chug-and-rumble of the diesel locomotive. The ground shakes. The wheels wail as they cling to the rail, steel grinding against steel, trying to hold the hulking snake of graffitied boxcars, tankers, and hoppers upright and on course. The brakes chirp. Nine thousand tons of driving metal and freight cutting the air, creating a wake that makes the mile markers sway. An awesome, irresistible force.

It takes two minutes and eight seconds for 120 cars to pass. Then a quick fade back to stillness and the low highway hum.