The baby, the conductor and the miracle

May 15, 1998

By Rex W. Huppke of The Associated Press

LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Tila Marshall looked up from her flower garden when she heard the train whistle. Why, she wondered, is it blowing so long today?

She looked around for Emily. Just moments ago, the 19-month-old had been right there, running her hands through the soil. Tila ran into the house yelling to 9-year-old Zachary: "Is your sister with you?"

"I thought she was with you."

Tila's stomach clenched into a knot.

It was 1:45 p.m., last Tuesday, and conductor Robert Mohr and engineer Rod Lindley were sweating in the cab of the locomotive pulling Norfolk Southern's No. 146, 100-cars long, through Lafayette.

It's a route they've covered hundreds of times, starting to the west in Decatur, Ill., and winding up in Bellevue, Ohio, about 10 miles south of Lake Erie.

They had slowed to 24 mph as they sliced through south Lafayette, passing less than a block from Tila's wood-frame duplex.

In the distance, Mohr spotted something on the right-hand side of the track. Lindley thought it might be a dog and blew the horn to scare it off. It didn't move, so he blew the horn again. And again.

Whatever was on the tracks raised its head. Mohr saw a wide-eyed face, a tiny pony tail sticking straight up.

"That's a baby!" Mohr hollered.

And then everything happened so fast. It all just happened so fast.

Lindley hit the brakes, knowing full well he could never stop in time. Mohr bolted out the side door of the cab. Clinging to the outside of the moving train, he sidestepped along a ledge that runs the length of the locomotive.

Lindley kept blowing the whistle. Blowing and praying.

The emergency brakes slowed the train to about 10 mph as Mohr scrambled down a set of steps at the front of the locomotive and lowered himself to the snowguard at the very tip of the train.

Responding to the whistle, Emily rolled off the rail and onto the rock-covered edge of the tracks. Better, Mohr thought, but still in the train's path.

As the horn blared and the brakes screamed, the distance kept closing: 40 feet, 20 feet, 10 feet.

The conductor stretched his 5-foot-9 inch frame, extending his right leg to kick the girl out of the train's path. He knew there would be only one chance.

Now! He felt his foot strike the baby as the locomotive swept by. Then he jumped from the moving train, uncertain whether his plan had worked.

As he race toward the baby, he could see her face and light-brown hair highlighted in blood. But she was moving and he could hear her crying.

"She's alive!" he thought.

Mohr scooped her up and cradled her in his arms, yelling for a nearby neighbor to call an ambulance.

"Let's go find mommy," Mohr said. He said it over and over again.

Patrolman Randy Hale of the Lafayette Police Department heard the call on the scanner: child hit by train. In minutes, he was at the scene, just in time to see Mohr walking along the tracks with a baby in his arms. There was blood all over the conductor's shirt.

But the child was crying. "That," Hale remembers, "was the best sound I've ever heard."

When the paramedics arrived and tried to take Emily, she clung to Mohr's heavy blue, bloodstained shirt.

"She didn't want me to let loose of her," he says.

From her backyard, Tila Marshall had heard the brakes scream and the train roll to a stop. Then she heard the police sirens. Now, police officers were crossing the street toward her house.

Tears streamed down her face as she watched them come. And then she screamed at them:

"Don't you come here and tell me that's my baby. Don't you tell me that."

Did your baby have a pony tail on top of her head? an officer asked.

Tila's knees went weak. She almost passed out.

An officer grabbed her.

"Your baby's OK," he said. Some part of the train had just clipped her, and the blood was from four superficial cuts on her head.

Emily was already on her way to St. Elizabeth's Medical Center, where her wounds would be closed with 20 stitches. There, doctors and nurses asked her for her name. Frightened, Emily just kept saying "Me. Me."

Tila rushed to the hospital. Sobbing, she clung to Emily. She kept telling her daughter how sorry she was.

When Mohr arrived home in rural Denver, Ind., Tuesday night, his family was waiting on the front porch, cheering their hero.

"I don?t feel like any hero," Mohr says. "I don't like that, I guess. I did what anybody would have done."

Mohr has had some close calls before in his 23 years on the rails. There have been a couple of collisions with vehicles, but never anything fatal and certainly never a small child.

"As far as people on the tracks, there's no training," Mohr says. "I just had to try something. It had to be just all adrenaline."

Cathy Mohr, the conductor's wife of nearly 25 years, calls her husband a quiet, humble man. But when the time came to step up, she's not surprised he did. She pauses to think about her hero. To think about that split second miracle and the two lives that can now continue on.

"Yeah," she says, "I could almost picture him doing this."

Tila wants to share that picture, to meet her heroes, both Mohr and Lindley.

"I can't wait to wrap my arms around both of these men," she says, "and tell them how grateful I am."

By Thursday afternoon, Emily was playing in the sunshine, proudly showing off her "boo boo" to anyone who cared to look.

Distributed by The Associated Press

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