The year was 1994. The summer season between my Junior and Senior year of high school was starting to come to a close. I had spent much of the summer working and hanging out with my friends like most teenagers of that age did back then. I had already made the decision to not play football and dealt with the blow back caused by such a decision in a small town and school. Despite my decision about football, I was excited to start my senior year of high school.
That excitement quickly came to a crushing end.
The day was August 2nd. I was in Dallas with my dad. They had agreed to help me buy a new car because I wanted something a bit more dashing than my late 80's model Toyota hatchback "econo-box" that they had given me when I turned 16.
We had just left a car lot and were headed south through Mesquite when my dad's cell phone rang. My dad answered, talked with the caller for a moment, and then handed me the phone.
It was my mother on the other end.
She called to tell me that one of my best friends and another classmate had been in a serious accident. My friend, teammate, and classmate John had been killed in the accident and my best friend Bryan had been Care Flight-ed to Tyler after sustaining major injuries.
There wasn't a lot of information available at the time other than they had been in an accident involving a train. I knew that if it involved a train that no matter the details that it was not going to be good.
I hung up the phone with my mom and immediately started calling our other friends who may not have heard. I asked my dad to take me home because I wanted to go to Tyler where Bryan was. We had spent significant amounts of time together, including holidays and vacations. He was more a brother to me than a friend and I wanted to be there at the hospital with him, as I was sure many of our other friends did too.
John-Mark had recently moved to Waco, an hour from where I lived. I called him and told him to meet me at the house. I would be home from Dallas with my dad in the amount of time it would take JM to get to my house from Waco. And sure enough, we both arrived at my house around the same time as planned.
JM and I jumped in my car and we headed out to Tyler, a two hour drive East from my house. When we arrived at the hospital, it was buzzing with friends and family who had all come to check on Bryan and await news of his condition.
The initial reports were grim.
Bryan and John had been at the school working out, getting ready for the upcoming football season. Bryan's dad, an electrician who just happened to be working a job at the school that day, asked Bryan and John to run into town when they took a break and pick up some parts he needed for the job.
Bryan and John eagerly agreed. They jumped in the big work truck and headed into town.
However, a short distance from the school, construction was taking place on a new overpass that would allow road traffic to skip over a set of railroad tracks that were commonly used. The small state highway that the school sat on had been seeing an increase in traffic. The new overpass would allow for greater traffic flow through the area.
The reports were somewhat contradictory but it seems that as Bryan and John approached the construction area, a train was also approaching. Some said the lights at the crossing were working but the arms did not come down to block the roadway while others said neither the arms or the lights were working.
Regardless, the train reached the crossing at the same time as Bryan and John. Bryan saw the train emerge from behind the big mound of dirt at the construction site at the last minute. He slammed on the truck's brakes and tried to swerve away from the oncoming train but it was too late.
The truck slid into the path of the charging train, striking the train's second engine. The force of the impact was so great that there were reports of the truck being launched straight up into the air so high that the lowest part of the truck to the ground was still several feet higher than the lights that were positioned over the top of the tracks. that means that the truck, a 4-door 1-ton work truck, was sent flying probably 25 to 30 feet into the air as it bounced off the speeding train.
Emergency services were called and dispatched to the scene immediately by the construction crew that had watched the incident unfold. The first responders arrived on scene and immediately found John. He was deceased. I won't go into the nature of his injuries but it seemed that his death had come quickly. Whatever fear he felt as the events began to unfold were likely wiped away in an instant without much pain.
But at this point nobody knew about Bryan. The first responders hadn't seen him anywhere so there was an assumption on their part that John was the only one in the truck. It was only when Bryan's father arrived on the scene several minutes later and asked about his son that the emergency services people realized that they had an unaccounted for victim in the accident.
The search for Bryan was on.
They found him several yards away from the truck and the road. He had been thrown clear from the truck during the impact and landed some distance away. He had suffered serious and significant injuries but was alive. The ambulance rushed him to our local hospital who then immediately rushed him via helicopter to Tyler who reportedly had the best head trauma center in the region.
Bryan needed multiple surgeries to repair his injuries that took several days. I stayed at the hospital for days along with many of our friends and Bryan's family members. The only day that we left the hospital was the day we returned to town for John's funeral.
The funeral was packed. It was standing room only. Practically the entire town came out to pay their respects to John and his family for their tragic loss. The worst part of the funeral was when it was over and we walked past the casket to pay our respects. Bryan's dad had attended the funeral. He had been wracked by guilt over John's passing and broke down as he walked towards the front of the room. He collapsed to his knees crying and had to be helped up. He was determined though to pay his respects and, with the help of others, made his way to John's casket where he cried and apologized for what seemed like several minutes.
John was relatively new our school having transferred there during our sophomore year but he and Bryan had become very close in that time. John was like another son to Bryan's parents. Paul blamed himself for what happened to Bryan and John. Something almost any parent in that position would have done but the truth was that Paul was not at fault. Sure, he had asked them to run into town on an errand, something every parent does with a child who is capable of driving, but that alone did not make him responsible for John's death.
But the truly disturbing thing to me is that after the funeral it was learned that the local D.A. was investigating the accident and looking at possible charges against Bryan's dad. It may have just been standard procedure in an accident like that but at the time we were all flabbergasted at the notion of Paul getting into serious legal trouble over the accident.
Luckily, nothing ever came from the D.A.'s investigation and Paul was left to only deal with his personal guilt, that I think stayed with him for a while after the accident.
After the funeral, I returned to the hospital where I stayed for another few days before having to return home. I had taken off several days from work to stay in Tyler but I had run out of time off and had to go back to work. Bryan stayed in the hospital a few more days but was eventually allowed to return home.
He was pretty beat up still and not allowed to do anything. I stopped by his house a few times to check on him and visit with him but he was understandably not always in a mood for company or conversation. But the thing that stuck out to me the most during those visits that will remain with me until the end of time was the recording he and John had made just days earlier.
The pair had gone to Dallas I think over the weekend and had done one of those mall studio recordings. It was the two of them singing Garth Brooks's song "Friends in Low Places". Neither of them could sing worth a damn so it was funny to listen to them caterwauling on tape to one of country music's biggest stars at the time.
Bryan listened to that tape over and over. I can't begin to imagine what he must have thought and felt listening to that tape. He never really spoke about the accident or anything. And this day it is not a subject that I dare ask about nor has he offered any additional insight to.
Bryan ended up not playing football our senior year also, although for very different and obvious reasons. In fact, Bryan didn't get to come to school for the first several weeks as he continued his recovery from the accident.
As the days passed, things returned to normal for most of us but we all noticed the absence of John's larger-than-life presence and charisma. Likewise, we all noticed a change in Bryan's demeanor upon his return. Bryan was typically a boisterous personality who was the life of the party but that had faded. It wasn't a mystery why and it wasn't a surprise to any of us but it was something that hung over the class all year.
Our last year of high school was suppose to be fun. Our final carefree months before beginning our journey into adulthood. Instead, we got death, misery, sadness, and a sense of loss, not only of our friend that was taken too soon but also of Bryan's bright, bubbly personality and of our youth.
Bryan was able to graduate at the end of the year with the rest of us. We all remembered John on our graduation day. It was something of a bittersweet moment for us. We had made it to the end of our school career, or at least most of us had.