(NEW YORK) — The photos showed a couple of happy kids celebrating young love in the country. The camera captured two 16-year-olds, John DeReggi, or John-John, posing with his girlfriend, dancing and jumping on empty railroad tracks in rural Maryland.
“He loved a thrill,” Christine DeReggi, John’s mother told ABC News. “He wasn’t reckless but he definitely loved adventure. He loved to laugh. He loved to be a little bit scared.”
It was all part of a photography class project to take inspirational photos filled with metaphors of youth and the pathway yet to come.
That was until an Amtrak train traveling upwards of 70 mph surprised John-John, his girlfriend and her twin sister, who was the photographer. The wind from the speeding locomotive pushing the girls back, but the 200-ton train crushed the boy before he could jump to safety.
Train track photography has become a dangerous trend. It is not illegal but shooting on private railroad tracks is.
A photo of a mom being rescued from train tracks by her husband, dressed as Batman, and their little “Boy Wonder” went viral. And there’s the celebrity fitness expert from BRAVO who died during a promo shoot. He had posted videos of workouts on the tracks before.
Deaths from walking on railroad tracks are up nearly 10 percent, with 483 last year alone, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, with many people pausing to take selfies on the tracks or pose for traditional camera shots.
Christine DeReggi called her son’s death “almost a triple tragedy” because of how close the girls came to being hit.
“They just escaped,” she said. “I mean, it was almost a triple tragedy… They saw it and it happened so quick they almost got sucked in. That’s how close they were.”
“The train apparently is much wider than the tracks and I don’t know how far he jumped to try and clear it but he didn’t clear it,” DeReggi said of her son.
DeReggi got the news from John-John’s screaming girlfriend. After that, she said her life stopped. She now remembers her son through the photos of his last tragic minutes.
“The moments before my son died are beautiful,” she said. “He’s at peace and he’s happy. You can see it’s just them doing a sweet project together.”
Just the other day in Florida, photographer Kelly Cortez took video of a shoot she conducted on the tracks of a family who wanted a keepsake picture.
Cortez says her shoots are safe because she stays near an intersection with a road for an easier escape and puts a penny on the track believing it will vibrate long before a train gets near her.
“You just have to be smart, you have to be responsible,” Cortez said.
But Don Woods, a Road Foreman of Engines on Norfolk Southern’s Washington District, based out of Manassas, Virginia, says it’s difficult to judge the speed of a train.
“It’s an optical illusion and if it’s a tie, you’re going to lose,” he added.
Railroad engineers told ABC News there is no safe way to take rail pictures. The roar of the engine follows the train, the sound surprisingly quiet as it speeds toward you. The tracks are also narrower than the trains, making it hard to judge safe clearance.
A fully loaded freight train weighs as much as 6,500 tons, and it can take 18 football fields to stop a train. It can also take anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes from emergency brake to full stop.
“Once the engineer decides to put the train in emergency and he’s seen you, it’s too late,” Woods said.
Charles Samuels, an engineer on Norfolk Southern in Virginia, says he sees people take selfies on the tracks every day and it haunts him, giving him what he calls “railroad dreams.”
“They don’t know how it’s going to affect me, you know, if I kill them or hurt them,” Samuels said. “They’re not worried about that. They’re worried about their shot or their whatever they’re doing. It’s just, it’s anger because they don’t understand how we have to live with it.”
The non-profit Operation Lifesaver, which aims to reduce rail fatalities, works with railways, including Union Pacific, which recently released new Public Service Announcements to try to slow down the rail photo trend.
The spots explain that people are often not able to get out of the way in time and the best way to stay safe is to stay off the tracks, as it’s not just illegal and dangerous, but deadly.
For student photographer Jeremy Sprites, his rail photo days are over. He was on the tracks just a few yards away the day John-John DeReggi was hit by the train.
“I definitely don’t think his passing was working taking pictures on train tracks,” Sprites said. “I doubt I ever will again because of the great risk that actually can happen.”
Looking back, John-John’s mother wishes she had said no on that summer day when her son and friends had the idea to take some pictures on the railroad tracks.
“Everything changed, everything changes,” she said. “everything is broken and it can’t be fixed. He’s never coming home again.”
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