|I met Shirley 41 years after announcing her family's tragedy.|
It took more than 41 years for this face-to-face encounter to materialize. The rendezvous started to take shape after I retired from Iowa Public Radio last year, when I received Shirley's mysterious text message on Facebook: "Did you work at KCCI in 1976?" "Yes," I answered, "What can I do for you?" She wanted to meet me. That was the moment when I violated a cardinal rule in journalism: Don't get too involved in a story.
Shirley informed me that I was the TV anchorman who delivered the news of her family's horrifying tragedy. "It happened on NE 56th when my mom was headed back from the police pool," she continued texting. "She [mom] was 46, David 12, Michael 7, Alvin Jr. 4, Sarah almost 3." I slumped in stunned silence before my computer screen. During my 50 year career, I had never heard of anything remotely close to this happening to another newscaster.
Shirley Overton wasn't quite 16 when the accident occurred. Now married to Dan, Shirley Evans still lives in Des Moines, and I felt uneasy driving to their residence where we would talk for the first time. Kyle Munson accompanied me; The Des Moines Register's leading feature reporter would share our poignant story with the widest audience possible. Shirley didn't want her family to be forgotten.
The front door greeting was cordial and genuine. We hugged and Dan took our coats as we settled in for a sometimes excruciating conversation, exposing the grim consequences of a terrible family catastrophe.
But first, I set up a laptop computer to play one of my KCCI-TV newscasts from 1976. Not the one from the day of the accident, but rather, a newscast recorded exactly three months earlier, when Shirley's family was still whole.
|Shirley watches my newscast from three months before the accident.|
|The iconic TV8 news set from the 1970s.|
Shirley was fearless and calm as we talked about that day and the newscast that is etched into her mind. "I remember you telling the story," she told me. "He's got a beard and looks like a cool guy, and he's kind of young. I'm going to remember Rick Fredericksen because he was the one that told the story to the whole world."
Shirley lost track of me when my career shifted overseas for 13 years before returning home to Des Moines. Once she heard about my retirement, she found me on Facebook and sent that initial eight-word text message.
"It's like God was telling me to look you up because it would be a good thing," she believed. As we sat together, I felt like a living memorial to her lost family. "That's what made me want to look you up, so I could have someone acknowledge they remember it."
On July 1, 1976, Shirley was babysitting for neighbors, when her mother, Patricia, went to the police recreation center to pick up 12-year-old David at the swimming pool. Alvin Overton, their father, was a Des Moines Police sergeant.
|Undated photo of Patricia and Alvin Overton. Alvin died in 2011.|
Patricia picked up David and was returning home with the four children, following a car ahead of her, when they approached the railroad tracks. After the first vehicle cleared the crossing, a freight train broadsided the Overton car, pushing it 200 yards down the track. There were no survivors.
The other siblings, including Shirley's twin sister Sharon, were waiting at home when Polk County Medical Examiner R.C. Wooters pulled up. Their father was in Wooters' official vehicle. "He [dad] got out of the car, red eyes, puffy, red nose, and handed me mom's purse." It's a moment Shirley recalls vividly. "That was all it took. Dad said, 'Get all the kids in the house now.'"
As word got out, family members, friends and policemen rushed to the east side residence. Shirley described the aftermath as "hysterics," frenzied memories that remain lucid. "We were all stomping our feet, lying on the floor, faces swollen and red from crying."
The pain was unbearable for Shirley's father. "My dad had his gun out. He goes into the bedroom and puts the gun to his head," she told us. "My uncle, who's a doctor, stripped the gun out of his hands and said, 'Don't do that again!'"
It was the same evening when Shirley turned on their favorite TV station to watch KCCI's 10 o'clock news, when I informed the audience about one of Iowa's worst rail crossing accidents in history. In an instant, a driver's momentary lapse had permanently reset the Overton family's genealogy. The next morning, it was The Des Moines Register's banner headline: "CAR-TRAIN CRASH KILLS 5."
|The Register's front page on July 2, 1976.|
Shirley knows things that could never be learned from a text book on advanced psychology. Life experience has given her valuable lessons to share with others who might face crushing grief.
"Get help, first and foremost," she insists. "Therapy is the only thing that's really gotten me through." Depression, anxiety, panic attacks and visits to psychologists and psychiatrists have shadowed her since the accident.
Nonetheless, Shirley got married, raised a family and worked at EMC (Employers Mutual Casualty Company) for 32 years. "I was scared every day that I was going to lose somebody from my family. To this day, I hear a siren and I'm calling my kids." She still takes medication, but counseling is now down to one doctor.
Raising her own family has also helped. "It's like I needed kids, I missed them," she thinks out loud, just like her mom, who was a nurse. "She was a baby lover like me. She was a nurturer and worked on the baby floor at Mercy (hospital)." Shirley and Dan had three children by the time she was 23. Their extended family now includes nine grand children.
More good advice: "Hug your family and say 'I love you' every day," she recommends. "I didn't get that chance. I had to wait till I saw five caskets to tell them that I loved them."
|Courtesy The Des Moines Tribune. July 4, 1976.|
She has gone through a similar process at the railroad intersection where the collision took place in Pleasant Hill. It is still an important rail line today and Kyle asked if she ever goes to the accident site. "We go all the time," Shirley said. "I closed my eyes for years if we ever went that way."
Like other Iowans, the Christmas season is sentimental for the family that originated with Patricia and Alvin Overton. "We always got everything we wanted. Dad made sure of it," Shirley said with anticipation. "My [twin] sister Sharon has it at her house. It's all warm and everybody gets along." But when she listens to "White Christmas," and other songs that her dad used to play, "It kind of makes me cry sometimes, but a lot of the times it's cathartic."
We said our goodbyes and the unforeseen reunion ended. Maybe it has helped Shirley heal just a little bit more. I realize she can never stop thinking about that day in 1976, and neither will I. Perhaps the emptiness of missing her loved ones is evolving into honoring them. That was her incentive for coming together 41 years later; to commemorate the lives of Patricia, David, Michael, Alvin Jr. and Sarah.
|Mom and dad with 4 of their 10 children. Sitting next to their mother are twins Sharon and Shirley (right).|