The patchy morning clouds had just begun to dissipate when the Tri-Rail train pulled out of the Pompano Beach station, heading south through the fading twilight of dawn. Thick bushes, tall green grass, and squat tan buildings littered with colorful graffiti lined the tracks. The train thumped by, picking up speed. It was only 7:50 a.m. but already hot and humid on that early September day in 2018.
The 160 people
Red-and-white gates dropped to stop traffic as the Tri-Rail locomotive neared the busy crossing on West Copans Road, just past the Home Depot. Every other day for years, that train and 49 others just like it, all painted with blue sky, palm trees, and American flags, had thundered through the intersection without incident. But today would be different.
The engineer blew the whistle and slammed on the brakes, but the train was traveling at 50 mph. It was already too late.
Lee Schaller was at the end of a path he had tried to escape months earlier. At impact, he was gone forever.
In that moment, Schaller's mother, Pamela Hagen; his close friend Thomas Moore; his stepfather, Ross Meurer; and dozens of others who cared about him became part of a group they never wanted to join: those left behind when a loved one is struck and killed by a train in the Sunshine State.
It happens every week in Florida, the second deadliest state after California for deaths on the tracks. In 2017, 76 people were killed here, a seven-year high. Most of those deaths occurred in South Florida. Some came on the Tri-Rail tracks, where Lee Schaller was struck, but the new Brightline train has also become problematic recently as faster passenger trains have set off on tracks that have been used by slower-moving freight trains for years. Since Brightline began test runs in the summer of 2017, 15 people have been killed on its tracks. At least ten others have been seriously injured.
All of the Brightline deaths involved pedestrians, while several of those injured on both lines were in their cars when hit. Many of the casualties were caused by a fatal miscalculation: The victims believed they had enough time to cross the tracks before the train arrived. Others were suicides; although the number is unclear, the company last year placed signs along its rail corridors reminding people that help is available and life is worth living.
Tri-Rail, whose tracks run mostly parallel to I-95, is considering expansion into more densely populated areas such as downtown Miami. Brightline, which passes through downtowns from Miami to West Palm Beach, will soon travel through Orlando, Tampa, and, perhaps one day, Jacksonville.
As deaths on the tracks have risen in recent years following a decades-long decline, train companies' expansion plans come with the risk of more casualties. But lawmakers, who are meeting now in Tallahassee for their annual session, have failed to pass potential solutions even while approving a greater volume of faster and more lethal trains.
For Lee Schaller's mom, Pamela Hagen, who lives on Long Island near New York City, the news that her son was among the many killed on the tracks came as a crushing blow. Her son had been missing for three days when the phone rang that cloudy September day on Long Island. "When I got the call, I didn't even dream... I thought maybe he had gotten in trouble or something," she recalls.
"Are you driving?" the detective asked.
"Yes," Hagen responded.
"You should pull over."
"I hate to tell you this," the detective said, "but he's deceased."
Hagen's voice drops to a whisper as she remembers the conversation. "I started screaming. I threw the phone down. I just started screaming. Even when I went down to Florida, I kept thinking, Maybe it was somebody else, and they just got mixed up. I still haven't turned his phone off. I still keep hoping he'll call me."
One hundred seven years ago, Henry Flagler stepped off the first train to reach Key West. It had finished a run on tracks that finally connected the United States' southernmost point to Jacksonville after almost two decades of work.
Flagler, one of Standard Oil's cofounders with John D. Rockefeller, paved the way for Florida as we know it today. Cities quickly sprang up along the Florida East Coast Railway, but in 1935, much of the track in the Keys was wiped out by a hurricane. Passenger service continued in parts to the north for another three decades but was finally discontinued in 1968.
Passenger rail began experiencing a revival in the early
In March 2012, Florida East Coast Industries proposed a privately owned high-speed passenger rail that would run along the path forged by Flagler. It would shuttle passengers between Miami and Orlando with only a few stops and was dubbed All Aboard Florida. Test runs for the train, which now operates as Brightline, began in 2017. The service officially launched between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in January 2018.
"South Florida has a vibrant economy and unique lifestyle — yet some of the nation's worst traffic," Patrick Goddard, president
But it wasn't a great look when Brightline invited business leaders aboard for the launch on January 13, 2018. Shortly after service began, the train struck and killed 32-year-old Melissa Lavell as she tried to cross the tracks around 6 p.m. in Boynton Beach.
In the year since then, it has seemed like every other week in South Florida, the same headline has been in the news: "Pedestrian Struck, Killed by Train."
Most railroad fatalities are the result of "trespassing," a technical term that some family members find cruel. People like Lavell, who
Most of the deaths by train have occurred in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties, where Tri-Rail has 72 miles of track and Brightline covers 65 miles. Each has between 150 and
When 38-year-old Robert Gray was killed by a freight train in Oakland Park just weeks before Christmas 2017, he left behind a wife and three young children, the Sun Sentinel reported. His death was ruled a suicide, but his wife believed he had stumbled onto the tracks by accident. His children, aged 3, 4, and 11, didn't understand what happened.
Jeffrey King was on his way home from work as a dishwasher at Troy's Barbecue in Boynton Beach when he was killed. As the Palm Beach Post reported after King was killed in January 2018, he had turned his life around after spending time in prison for an unarmed robbery. He found religion behind bars. After his release, he volunteered at a soup kitchen in Delray Beach, cared for his mother and his 11-year-old Siberian husky, and went to church with his sister and nieces most Sundays. His family believes the train companies should do more to keep people away from the tracks.
On New Year's Day 2019, Andres Israel Rodriguez-Oliva walked along a bridge in Fort Lauderdale on his way to meet friends. He had planned to go fishing in the canal near the 6300
Four months after Lee Schaller was killed by a Tri-Rail train in Pompano Beach, his mom Pamela Hagen and close friend Thomas Moore slide into a blue-and-white-patterned booth at Canterbury's Oyster Bar & Grill, an old-school Long Island seafood restaurant in the town of Oyster Bay, about 50 miles from Manhattan.
It's raining heavily outside. The sky is gray. It's the last day of the year, and Christmas lights are still strung up around the restaurant. Hagen pushes a wicker basket full of framed photographs across the table. She's petite and soft-spoken, with
Hagen spots a woman in a wedding dress holding hands with a man in a suit at a nearby table. The couple got married that morning. "Oh, look," Hagen says, clasping her hands and smiling weakly as she gazes at the couple. "Here we are talking about death, and there's a new beginning happening right beside."
"The world keeps on turning," Moore says.
But for Hagen, the world is a much darker place than it was before the train killed her son. Schaller's death shows how difficult it can be to prevent train tragedies. What happened that morning has left family and friends reeling with unanswered questions.
Though Schaller was 42 years old when he was struck by the train in Pompano, he and his mother were still very close. "He was like a little star that came and went," Hagen says. "He had a kind, generous spirit. When he still lived here, he'd call and tell me, 'Mom, I'm around the corner and I have something for us to eat!' He knew I hated to cook."
Lee Schaller grew up with his mom in Cold Spring Harbor, a ten-minute drive from Oyster Bay. His parents separated when he was young. Cold Spring Harbor is a small town of about 5,000, famed for its research laboratory, which has been home to eight Nobel Prize-winning scientists. For a time when Lee was a boy, Hagen ran a thrift store called Hodgepodge on the corner of East Main and Church Street. The school bus used to drop him off right in front of the shop, where he'd stand holding onto the railing while shouting, "Does anybody wanna buy anything?"
"He was a blast," Hagen says as she pulls photos of Lee from the brown basket. They are still in frames from the ceremony held for his death months earlier. In one photo, Hagen lies in a field of grass. She beams as Lee, still a toddler, tackles her with a hug and plants a kiss on her face, the sun bouncing off his brown curls. He was her only child.
Hagen worked as an administrator for a nearby college, Old Westbury. She raised Lee by herself, which at times was made easier by his practical, quiet nature. He loved rock climbing, soccer, and animals, and though he rarely spoke, he always listened. He picked things up quickly. Once, when Lee was little, he and Hagen were at her
In the '80s, as a 10-year-old, Lee would walk to a fast-food place called the Beef Burger to play Pac-Man. It was just around the corner from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and was frequented mainly by scientists and motorcyclists. Lee always had the highest score — his three-letter name, "LEE," glowed atop the list at anyone who dared try to beat him. One day, a laboratory scientist left a note asking Lee to stop by the eatery so they could play against each other in person.
The boy showed up and held onto his title. "Lee beat the pants off that guy," Hagen recalls with a smile.
As Lee grew older, he began to walk everywhere. He hardly ever complained. To his high-school friends like Moore, it became something of a game to guess whether they would spot Lee on the side of the road in his long black coat.
Lee, who was dyslexic, struggled in high school but earned his GED and then moved to North Carolina to be with friends who had relocated there for college. In the late '90s, he returned to New York and became a stockbroker. Lee had a mind for math and problem-solving. Though he was so laconic his step-father jokingly referred to him as "the FBI," Lee was also a gifted salesman.
He returned to Cold Spring Harbor in the early 2000s and partnered with a friend in the commercial real-estate business. "Mom, I found an apartment in a gated community, and it's
Around that time, Lee married, but he and his wife later separated. He took on some debt and then flitted around Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where things took a troubling turn.
"He loved poker," Moore says. "But I worry it was his undoing in a way. He used to stay up all night and play — he had a time when he thought people were at their
That's when Lee began taking methamphetamine to stay awake.
In Vegas, he began disappearing for days at a time. He started hallucinating. He believed the government had bugged his hotel room. His father arranged for one of Lee's high-school friends to fly to Vegas and bring him home.
In 2017, Lee moved to Miami. Hagen flew down to help him get set up in an apartment near the airport. The two spent time together in South Beach and Little Havana, but before long, he began disappearing again.
In February 2018, Lee sought help. He went to a hospital hoping to be admitted under the Baker Act, but he was turned away. Things improved when he found a place in a sober living environment, and by July, he had moved to Pompano Beach and found a job selling beds. He even adopted a stray kitten. Things were looking up.
But by September, Hagen began worrying again. She hadn't heard from her son in three days. She called Moore, but he was also in the dark. The train, they would later learn, had already taken Lee's life.
Trains can't stop on a dime. By the time a conductor sees you, it's already too late. It can take a mile or more for a locomotive traveling at 50 mph to stop. Novel solutions such as motion-detection cameras and pedestrian bridges have been floated by rail companies in Florida and across the nation. Tri-Rail, for instance, is working on a pilot project that would use drones to identify and warn trespassers to get off the tracks and then notify engineers of pedestrians up ahead.
A study of Florida's passenger rail system commissioned by the state Legislature in 2018 identified several key ways to reduce train deaths. Among them were establishing harsher penalties for trespassing at crossings, reviewing statewide suicide prevention activities, and studying access to mental-health services. Stationing police officers or crossing guards along the tracks, the study suggested, could prevent some people from being killed or injured.
The study also urged lawmakers to conduct a detailed analysis of train-related injuries and deaths to identify areas where strategic safety improvements could be made. Some have called for the entire rail lines to be fenced in — an expensive proposal given Florida's hundreds of miles of tracks. One issue is that fences might hamper first responders' efforts to reach those injured in train accidents.
But selective fencing used in densely populated areas to channel pedestrians toward secured crossings has been shown to work, says Allen Yoder, director of safety and security for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA). "People don't realize how fast these trains are going and how heavy they are," Yoder says. "Trains can't stop like a car. It's very traumatic for our engineers. It happens quicker than you think. Your life could be over in an instant."
Tri-Rail has installed several thousand miles of fencing along its tracks. And last year, the SFRTA posted signs along the Tri-Rail corridor in Broward and Palm Beach reading, "In a crisis or depressed? Call 211. Help is here for you 24 hours a day! Life is worth living."
Quad gates — barriers that span the entire intersection rather than just a portion of it — might discourage drivers from trying to cross at the last second. Tri-Rail representatives say every one of their crossings
However, Brightline's lawyers and spokespeople have repeatedly stated they don't think the company should pay to maintain or improve crossings because the tracks predate the cities that sprang up around the railway.
The stakes of the battle increased when Virgin Group, a British venture capital conglomerate founded by Richard Branson, formed a "strategic partnership" with Brightline in November 2018. At the time, Brightline announced Virgin would make a "minority investment" in Brightline, which in 2019 would be rebranded as Virgin Trains USA. Virgin has already been operating flights out of Miami via Virgin Airlines for decades and also runs trains around the United Kingdom.
In the next decade, Brightline plans to expand north and west to Orlando and Tampa, a $4 billion project. Brightline owns the corridor all the way to Jacksonville, so in all
In Indian River County, which is north of Port St. Lucie and on the route to Orlando from South Florida, some critics are fighting the expansion. This past January 16, the county filed a lawsuit against Brightline arguing the public should not have to pay for improvements at 21 railway crossings in the county. Indian River has spent roughly $235,000 per year to maintain the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) crossings used by freight trains, TCPalm reported. But the county has argued an agreement with FEC does not extend to Brightline.
"It is clear," Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold says, "that Brightline expects the taxpayers of Indian River County to pay for the installation and maintenance of Brightline's highway-railroad crossing safety improvements forever. This is unacceptable."
The county has spent millions battling Brightline in court over the past several years; a prior lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge.
Martin County, which brought a similar suit against Brightline, spent roughly $4 million fighting the train company before settling this past November for a "one-time investment in safety infrastructure" of fencing at a cost of $1 million.
As part of the settlement, Brightline agreed to install several other safety infrastructure improvements in the county, pay for some crossing maintenance costs in the first 14 years of operation, and build a Treasure Coast station —
Debbie Mayfield, a Republican state senator representing the Treasure Coast, has introduced the Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act in the past two legislative sessions in an attempt to make Brightline pay for any future maintenance and safety enhancements at its crossings. The act would also give the Florida Department of Transportation greater oversight of high-speed passenger rails. She might introduce it again this session.
"I truly believe the issue of safety needs to be addressed immediately," Mayfield tells New Times. "I would like to see Brightline take ownership of installing safety technology at rail crossings and maintaining those crossings over time. Local governments should not have to absorb the costs of protecting their citizens from a private project."
Indian River County's Reingold adds, "Our biggest issues have always been speed, safety, and cost. In South Florida right now, Brightline is going about 80 mph, and they've already killed 14 people. Here, they're talking about going even faster. That's more than 30 trains going through over 30 railroad crossings a day, so 900 more crossing events
As train companies and the government bicker, Hagen replays events over and over in her mind, wondering if there was a path her son could have taken that didn't end with the train. "I wake up happy every morning because it's a beautiful day, but then I remember —" Hagen says, placing her hands over her heart and shaking her head. "And it comes over me, and I feel like I'm choking. It's like I'm living a nightmare. I just can't believe I'll never see him again."
Video shot from the front of the Tri-Rail train that killed Lee shows him coming into view as he walks on the railroad tracks directly toward the train. Then he breaks into a sprint. His expression lacks clarity; he does not appear to be in a normal state of mind.
The death was ruled a suicide almost immediately, his mom says. That was long before a toxicology report showed N-
"There was no way he was thinking of giving up," says Lee's friend, Thomas Moore. "Lee called the wrong person, got the wrong thing, and walked in the wrong direction. And now he's gone, and he shouldn't be."
In the weeks before his death, Lee had texted his mom about getting his birth certificate so he could renew his passport — he wanted to go to El Salvador to help a friend with a political campaign. After the accident, when Hagen went to her son's apartment in Pompano Beach to collect his things, she found the birth certificate had finally arrived.
To the people who loved him, Lee was someone who never had a bad word to say about anybody. He was taciturn and kind-hearted, a generous person to whom possessions meant little. He was loyal and likable.
For his mother, each day is another unanswered question: How could his death have been ruled a suicide before the toxicology report was available? If he died as a result of buying the wrong drug, was it really accidental? If he had something so deadly in his system, why didn't the police search for the dealer? What was Lee thinking? Why did this happen?
She still talks about him in the present tense. She saved voicemail messages he left on her phone so she can still hear his voice.
"I would do anything to prevent one child, grandparent, mom, dad, or friend from this gruesome death," Hagen says. "The trauma affecting the families and friends, the railroad conductor, the witnesses, and the first responders can't be quantified or measured."