The story behind one of the most notorious deaths ever to be caught on camera and its unexpected connections to an infamous adult video series.
Death on camera is always a moral conundrum. There are many legitimate reasons for the footage being shown but it nevertheless still feels like a terrible intrusion. For many people, the point that their death was caught on camera will become their defining moment – the only thing that anyone knows them for, with all of life’s achievements, big or small, cast aside. They are forever defined by this final act, tagged with a descriptive and often sneering nickname by people who will never know anything else about them – and who don’t care anyway. Their deaths are taken away from them to be used as cautionary tales and entertainment for ghouls, decontextualised and mythologised.
The particularly violent death of the woman that will forever be known as ‘Traingirl’ is a classic example. This is one of the most notorious and shocking moments ever caught on camera, made more dramatic by an almost theatrical series of chance moments. You may already be familiar with the footage, which is freely available on the sort of video sharing sites that ban nudity but are fine with violence. It’s also been shown on TV documentaries, though these shows usually cut the footage before the moment of death. We’re not embedding the clip here – not out of any moral superiority, but because we don’t want to inflict it on anyone who isn’t prepared. If you want to see it, you’ll be able to find it easily enough.
The events took place on Monday 26th August 1991 at the quaint Downer’s Grove Fairview Avenue Station – one of three train stations on the busy BNSF commuter line in Downer’s Grove, Illinois – and the video recording begins at 5.48pm. On this day, a trainspotter and his grandson had set up with their camera to catch footage of a Burlington Northern E9 locomotive before it was withdrawn from service. The station has three parallel tracks running through it and a pedestrian crossing, which was the place where the train enthusiasts had set up their camera. As the footage starts, we can see a stationary train that is unloading passengers – and we can also see that the crossing barrier is down and the warning lights are flashing. Nevertheless, people are walking around the barrier to cross the rails.
I’m always fascinated by the way people treat rail crossings as though the closed barriers, flashing lights and ringing bells are mere suggestions rather than very specific warnings. It seems that most incidents of people being hit by trains at crossings involve individuals ignoring the warnings and jumping the gate, willing to risk everything to get to wherever they are going a couple of minutes sooner. Trains, of course, are notoriously deceptive. If you stand at a rail station platform and watch a train arriving from up the track, it never looks as though it is going that fast – distance distorts speed and it is unsurprising that some people will see a train in the distance, look at the crossing length of a couple of metres and figure that they can easily nip across before the train arrives at that point. No one ever seems to remember the blast of wind and sheer speed of a train hurtling past you at a station.
It’s been suggested that the impatient people we see in the video are crossing regulars who believe that the barriers have been automatically triggered by the stationary train. Perhaps they have used this crossing under these circumstances many times before without incident. Of course, they’ve effectively been playing Russian Roulette but familiarity breeds contempt.
Coming up behind, at 5.52pm, are a man and a woman. By this point, no one else is crossing, seemingly because someone noticed a train arriving in the distance. However, the stationary train is blocking the view of the next track and – arguably – the ambient noise of the station and the warning signals are masking the approach. For whatever reason, the couple continues to cross. With precise timing, they step directly into the path of the Burlington Northern E9 Racetrack train, travelling at 60mph from Chicago to Naperville. Somehow, the man who was slightly in front manages to jump out of the way just in time. The woman is less fortunate. The train hits her with full force and – in a morbidly cinematic moment – her body is flung over the crossing, flying into the still-running video camera.
It’s perhaps this final moment that makes this clip stay with me. As horrific as the sight of someone being hit by a train is, the fact that her body flies at the screen makes it all that more disturbing. As we’ve said before, real death – especially violent, sudden death – has a look that no fictional portrayal can match. It’s the light going out in the eyes and the broken emptiness of the face that unsettles. The brutal awareness that it can all be over in a split second and there will be nothing left.
The man filming suffered a broken leg as a result of the body hitting him. His grandson, allegedly, was also hit by body parts – while the video quality is domestic and the events happen so quickly, there is an awareness of the woman coming apart and we know that high-speed train impacts basically disintegrate the body and some people have – of course – poured over the video footage frame by frame to detail the precise nature of the destruction caused. It’s unclear what happened to the videographer and his grandson but I hope they got appropriate therapy and support afterwards. Can you imagine how awful that experience must’ve been?
Incredibly, the train crew did not even know that anyone had been hit – the woman had literally appeared from in front of the stationary train at the last second and couldn’t be seen from the driver’s cab. Not that seeing her would’ve helped – a train travelling at this speed would take over a mile to come to a halt. It took ten minutes for the train to be alerted by the police after they received reports of the accident. It’s claimed that the train then had to back up the track, passing the still-uncovered body. The driver and engineer were understandably traumatised by the sight – a death they had been intimately involved in but had not been at all responsible for – and were relieved of duty. It’s common for train drivers who are involved in these sorts of incidents never to work again, so shattering is the experience. The train service was delayed for an hour and then normal service was resumed.
Such are the basic facts of the case. Let’s dig a little further, shall we?
The woman destined to become known as ‘Traingirl’ was Mary Theresa Wojtyla, née Walch, born on November 8th 1949 – she was 41 years old when she died. There is precious little information about her life to be found but we know that she was married with three children and in the process of divorcing her husband. The man with her at the crossing was her attorney and the pair were walking to a nearby office to sign the divorce papers and finalise the dissolution of the marriage. What should have been the start of a new chapter in her life became its final moment. In the video, we see the lawyer glance back at her and say something – is he telling her to hurry or simply discussing what they are about to do? As he sees the train, he steps back but there would almost certainly be no time for him to say anything to stop Wojtyla at that point I imagine. Perhaps when he saw the train, he assumed that she too would stop and step out of the way. Perhaps he shouted a warning, too late. It’s possible, however, that he inadvertently blocked her view of the forthcoming train and so she kept going. Unsurprisingly, her lawyer has not made any public comment on the case or been identified.
Wojtyla had a split second to realise what is about to happen before it happened – while her death was instantaneous and so as painless as anything like this could be, she still had time to become horrifically aware of what was about to happen. I can only imagine what her final thoughts must have been.
Wojtyla’s death might have been just another footnote in rail history – a tragedy that is not all that unique. Around one thousand people a year die in the United States in train-related accidents, most of them at crossings. The video recording made all the difference. In the aftermath of the accident, the footage was seized as evidence by the police and then obtained by news services. Some people might question why this sort of footage is ever publicly released – but there is no legal reason why it wouldn’t be. In fact, the footage was used for legitimately educational reasons – the video (minus the point of impact) has been used by rail safety organisation Operation Lifesaver at events to bring home the dangers of ignoring crossing warnings and even TV news broadcasters who showed it – again, without the final moments – could claim that they were making people aware of the risks involved. I can fully believe that this footage has done more to prevent people from taking stupid risks at rail crossings than any safety lecture ever could.
Of course, once a clip like this enters the public domain, there is little control over where – or how – it is shown. In the mid-1990s, the footage made its way to the offices of Real TV, a reality-based TV show that specialised in showing bizarre and unusual footage that had slipped past the mainstream news shows. While the show itself was still very much censored, the company still gathered up huge amounts of content to look at and see if it fitted with their style – and much of this footage was of extreme accident and assault material that could never be shown on television. Sitting through some of this footage was production assistant Joe Francis, who realised that there might be money to be made from all this sensationalist and forbidden content. In 1998, Francis began licensing as much of the more extreme material as he could and put it together as Banned from Television, the first of three VHS collections of atrocities in the tradition of the Mondo movie – except that these collections had no contextualising narration or connecting theme to justify its existence. The footage was presented as it came and while not sensationalised in the way that some subsequent atrocity collections were (it doesn’t have a snarky narration or heavy metal soundtrack, for one thing) it hardly stands as a legitimate documentary either. You are not going to come away from Banned from Television more informed and the collections were clearly made as sensationalist entertainment. In that, they are no different than many a TV show that uses less explicit but still sensational reality footage as a cheap way of grabbing the attention of channel hoppers. To condemn Banned from Television and its ilk while enjoying road accident collections or true crime documentaries is just hypocritical.
In the US, the tapes were marketed with lurid late-night cable TV infomercials – viewers could order their copies over the phone. In the UK, Medusa Home Video tried to release the first edition in 1999, presumably thinking that the 1995 VHS release Executions had set a precedent for showing real (and violent) death – but of course, Executions had a context that Banned from Television was missing. The British Board of Film Classification banned the video release. Within a few years, though, this ban was very much irrelevant as online ‘shock sites’ like Ogrish and Best Gore began hosting this sort of content – this exact content, in fact – with the emphasis on shocking, offending and amusing gorehounds who made no distinction between splatter movie fakery and documentary realism. The footage would also appear on more mainstream video sites – you can still find it, uncensored (beyond some posters trimming the ‘boring’ beginning to jump straight to the horror) on YouTube. Mary Wojtyla’s death had become entertainment with her labelled ‘traingirl’ and the narrative story behind her death either fictionalised or ignored.
Joe Francis did rather well out of the Banned from Television series thanks to the heavy advertising and the public’s insatiable desire for sensationalism. For the young producer, though, each compilation was emotionally exhausting as he had to look through all the footage again and again. None of this was to his personal taste – he was only in it for the money. However, the project had a silver lining for Francis. While researching footage, he began to see clips of girls flashing their breasts at Spring Break and Mardi Gras. This was much more his sort of thing and, just as importantly, more commercial and before long he’d used everything that he’d learned with Banned from Television – the heavy TV advertising, the mail order, the packaging style – on his new project, Girls Gone Wild, which became one of the most iconic – and controversial – adult video brands of the 2000s. Ironically, Francis would face far more legal problems due to this series than he did with his death footage – but that’s another story.
The train that killed Wojtyla was subsequently decommissioned and left to rot in a siding near O’Hare airport. There’s an urban explorer video of what is left of the train for those of you who enjoy these things.
Her family brought an unlawful death lawsuit in the years after the accident, though it was hard to see just how anyone other than the victim could really be held responsible. The case was unsuccessful because after all, the railway authorities had provided a gate, a ringing bell and flashing lights to warn people not to cross – if someone ignored all that, you could hardly blame it on anyone but the individual.
On the fatal video, Wojtyla looks slightly officious and stiff – her attempts to cross the tracks appear a bit self-important as if waiting was for other people. It’s easy to judge people in these situations and yes, this death was ultimately the fault of the deceased – had she simply followed the rules and waited for the gates to open, she would perhaps still be alive today. But we’ve all made mistakes, had near-misses with traffic, cut corners when we should know better. There’s every chance that she was distracted by what she was about to do – even the most broken of couples must find the final signing of divorce documents momentous. Perhaps she too had jumped the tracks many times and became complacent – perhaps she’d done it so much that going around the gate became automatic. In the only other photo of her online, she looks younger, happier, more relaxed – someone with hopes and dreams like the rest of us. Whatever she did in life and whatever her own culpability in her own death, she deserved better than to end up as an internet meme with her final moments chortled over by people who don’t even know her name.
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