James W. Dickerson, the sandy-haired yard foreman at the Southern Railway System complex in Alexandria, had a beer with friends Friday evening to mark the beginning of his 29th year on the railroad.
"The railroad was his life, just like it was for his brother and father before him," said his 20 years old son, Richard yesterday. Dickerson's supervisors called him "an excellent worker" who at age 52 would jog from track to track organizing the order of cars carrying freight to various businesses along the line.
At 9:45 a.m. yesterday, Dickerson was directing 27 coal cars into a receiving yard at Pepco's Potomac river coal plant at 1400 N. Royal St. when he noticed that one car was about to strike a stationary freight car.
To prevent the collision Dickerson instinctively did "the same way he had done a million times before," according to colleagues at the yard. He apparently ducked under the slowly moving car hoping to pull an emergency brake.
Yesterday something went wrong and dickerson slipped, his body falling across the coal steel rails. Police said he died instantly.
The incident occurred less than 20 yards from the main gate of the Pepco plant and left workers at the yard stunned and disbelieving. State troppers assisted Alexandria patrolmen in mapping and photographing the scene for two hours before Dickerson's body, covered with a white sheet, was removed from the track.
It was the first fatality that anyone could remember at the small Southern railroad yard adjacent to the George Washington Parkway. Virginia State Police Trooper R. P. Giambrone, a rail accident specialist, said the death appeared to be accidental.
"It's a tragic thing," said Southern Railway spokesman Charles Morgret yesterday. "His first day of work for us was Jan. 11, 1951."
"There were workers with a walkie-talkie just a few cars up from him, but they couldn't stop the train in time," the spokesman said. "He was just doing his job."
Thomas Woodson, Dickerson's immediate supervisor said Dickerson got along well with all the yard's workers, many young enought to be his sons.
At Dickerson's home, 4515 Tipton Lane, in Fairfax County, his children found it difficult to believe that their father was dead. "I just can't accept it," said his 19-year-old daughter Susie.
Dickerson's 20-year-old son, Richard said he still had no doubts that he would become the third generation of Dickersons to spend his life on the railroads.
"I'm still going to do it," Richard said, "I know it will make him happy."