On a warm June night in 1978, William Souder and Willie Sligh, both 13 at the time, were playing among the railroad cars in a section of a railroad yard near Benning Road NE just south of the Minnesota Avenue Metro station. They climbed atop a stationary freight car, and came too close to the overhead electric wires that power the trains. The resulting 12,000-volt shock flung them 20 feet to the ground.
The electric current, which entered Souder's body through his shoulder and exited through his foot, charring his sneaker in the process, caused third-degree burns over much of his body. Sligh received superficial burns on his head and chest.
Today, 70 percent of Souder's body is scarred and the 17-year-old can't raise his right arm above his shoulder. Since the accident, he has undergone three major operations at Children's Hospital with medical costs totaling $38,000.
Residents and community leaders in this Northeast Washington community near Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road worry that, because the yard is not fenced in, other children may be injured by electrical wires or moving trains. For many years, the railroad yard, adjacent to many back yards in the Mayfair and Parkside neighborhoods in Northeast, has been used as a shortcut to Kenilworth Avenue and Anacostia Park.
"There's a concern for the children," said Ethel Onley, president of the Central Northeast Civic Association. "Children tend to go where they feel there's some adventure, and erecting a fence would help serve as a barrier."
According to court records and statements by residents, there were no warning signs or fences to keep children and other trespassers out of the railroad yard and away from its dangers when Souder and Sligh were injured four years ago. There are no signs or fences today, just weeks after the owner of the yard, Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail), agreed to pay Souder $200,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
Conrail officials say the danger of people being electrocuted has diminished since the company switched from electric to diesel locomotives a year ago. But high voltage wires overhead are still activated in sections of the yard for various uses, according to Conrail spokeswoman Karen Hardaker.
A Conrail spokesman said the company has no plans to erect a fence along its yard near Minnesota and Benning.
"The costs would be staggering to enclose rail yards even on a limited basis such as in high population areas," said Saul Resnick, director of media relations for Conrail. He explained that Conrail operates hundreds of rail yards on its 16,000-mile route system and it would not be feasible to fence them all.
Conrail also believes fencing would not solve the problem. "If people want to trespass, they will find a way," Resnick said. Other officials believe fences would not deter trespassers because they say the fences would only be torn down by people wanting to take shortcuts across the tracks and by children playing around the cars.
"While a kid trespassing should not be there, he doesn't deserve to be killed because of it," said Michael Abelson, Souder's attorney. Abelson said that landowners are responsible to trespassers under the "attractive nuisance doctrine": If an object, such as a railroad car, is attractive to someone, a landowner is responsible for protecting the area.
Conrail, Abelson claimed, was lax in its responsibility to protect the yard. "Conrail has good reason to know kids play in the yard and are getting hurt. They don't have to wait for regulations requiring fences."
Conrail officials refused to comment on the Souder case.
One Conrail employe who works at the Benning yard, but who wished to remain anonymous, agreed the problem of trespassing children is bad, especially in the summer months, but maintained fencing is not the answer. "It wouldn't help here because it hasn't helped anywhere else," he said.
A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration also said fencing would do little to keep out trespassers. "If Conrail installed fences in the area, in a week the bulk of that fence would be torn down," said John Winston, director of public affairs for FRA.
"It's a phenomenon in this country for years that people are fascinated by railroad tracks," Winston said. He said that, as an alternative to fencing certain areas, children should be taught the dangers of rail yards by parents and teachers.
But residents and neighborhood leaders around the Benning yard disagree and claim fencing is essential for the children's safety.
"The children have no playground here, so they play at the railroad yard," said Barbara Garland, a mother of three who lives behind the Benning yard office at 33rd and C streets SE. She said she's fearful of children getting hurt because "in this particular area, there's nothing but children."
Residents have attempted to get the railroad yard fenced for years, according to Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 7D Chairman James Parks. "But Conrail has not been cooperative with the ANCs," he charged.
Parks said his ANC wrote to D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy eight years ago requesting fencing and signs be placed in the railroad yard but was told the city had no jurisdiction over Conrail. Parks also disagrees with Conrail's contention that fences would be torn down by trespassers. He noted that fences around the Minnesota Avenue Metro subway station have not been damaged in the past four years.
Conrail, citing economic factors as a reason for not erecting fences, has lost millions of dollars in the past year as a result of injuries.
Steven Throop, a teen-ager from California, was awarded $8.3 million last June for injuries he suffered here when he came too close to the overhead electric wires at a Conrail yard at Seventh and D streets SW in 1978, only two weeks after the Souder incident at the Benning yard. The accident occurred during Washington's July 4 celebrations when Throop, who was visiting Washington, climbed on top of a railroad car to observe the fireworks display. As a result of the shock, he lost both legs and one arm.
Residents are not alone in asking railroad companies to fence their yards. The National Transportation Safety Board reported in 1978 that 82 percent of the fatalities involving trains occurred in areas without fencing. "Selective fencing might be an effective method of reducing fatalities," the report said, and recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration "develop criteria for the selection of fence sites."
But the FRA has not yet ordered the railroads to install fences at key sites, such as urban railroad yards like Benning yard, and a spokesman said the agency is not planning to investigate the Conrail yard near Benning Avenue NE.
"If we see a condition that's unsafe, we step in and say something," said FRA Public Affairs Director Winston. "But we can't just arbitrarily tell Conrail to fence their property."
Winston said the FRA would have to examine the situation and perform a cost analysis before making any regulations regarding fencing.
Conrail officials would not comment on the NTSB report, which Abelson, Souder's attorney, says they "callously ignored."
Abelson said that since the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) has fences and signs on all its above-ground routes, Conrail should do the same. "It's up to Conrail to protect residents of the District in that area (Benning yard) since they own the property," he said.
Metro officials agree fencing is important. "You can't say fencing does not act as a deterrent but if people are determined to go over a fence, they will," said Metro spokeswoman Marilyn Dicus. "You do everything you reasonably can for safety and fencing is one of them."
But Conrail officials contend that a comparison cannot be drawn between Conrail and Metro, a relatively small, city transportation system.
While residents and neighborhood leaders believe fencing and signs are essential for the Benning railroad yard, Conrail officials in Philadelphia said there are no plans at all for such work at the yard.