Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Anchorman's Haunting Story

I met Shirley 41 years after announcing her family's tragedy.
I sat in Shirley's living room a week before Thanksgiving and we became acquainted for the first time. Although she was previously unknown to me, I was among the most important men in her life. As we chatted, a subdued train whistle could be heard in the background. It came from the same railroad tracks where her mother, three brothers and a sister were killed in a car-train crash on July 1st, 1976.

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.
The news desk was in the shape of a figure "8," reflecting KCCI's designated TV channel. I was only 26 and sat behind the massive "8" alone. My 10 o'clock co-anchor, Russ Van Dyke, was off that night. Connie Mc Burney was at the weather map and Pete Taylor gave the day's sports. Shirley was able to see me again with my beard, on the same set, exactly how it would have looked that fateful night 12 weeks later, when I announced that five of her family members had perished.

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 was under stress, and had left supper on the stove, when she loaded three of the couple's other 10 kids into the car. Alvin was upset that his wife had dropped David off at the pool without supervision. "Mom left mad," Shirley told us, "and she knew she had this hamburger cooking."

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 was courageous as she reconstructed the incident, as another ghostly train whistle punctuated the conversation. For close to two hours, Kyle and I listened, and Register photographer Zach Boyden-Holmes recorded her spellbinding commentary. Trying not to provoke her emotions, Shirley spoke matter-of-fact, like a deposition before a court reporter. But her personal account revealed the traumatic consequences that inundated her life for decades.

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.
Shirley's symptoms reminded me of post-traumatic stress. I've seen it in soldiers who have gone back to Vietnam in search of closure. Returning to the front line can be liberating for veterans. Perhaps seeing me again was Shirley's way of going back to her own battlefield; the day of the tragedy. When I suggested PTSD, she responded, "I kind of wish that people could see it that way."

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).
Later that day, something bothered me about our meeting. At the time, I thought it would be insensitive to ask Shirley about the distant train whistles that persisted while we conversed. So I sent Shirley a text message, and this was her devastating answer: "Yes, it's the same tracks and that makes me realize that's the sound that she [mom] would have heard." She continued, "For some odd reason, I hear it at night and I will stand at the door and listen."


  1. This is the reason I never take chances anytime near a rail crossing and when the lights come on or bells start ringing. My thoughts are with Shirley and her family. We as Iowans are so fortunate to have such kind and professional journalists as Rick Fredericksen, an icon of reporters. Congratulations Rick on a fine presentation of a very sensitive feature.

    Jay Carollo Marshalltown Iowa

  2. Thanks Jay. Your feedback means a lot. This was a frightening experience for me too--I even lost sleep thinking about it--but Shirley and her family deserve ALL the attention. Their experience cuts to the essence of life--and death.

  3. I remember the story very well. I always thought there had to be something distracting that mom. Thank you for telling the story.

  4. There didn't necessarily have to be anything distracting the mom. Regular automobiles don't perform a stop and check at RR crossings, like school buses do. There's a lot of moving parts to a RR crossing incident. Speed of the train, when the conductor sounded the horn, etc. I cringe at the Easton crossing, eastbound, because it's very built up and hard to see much, and then there's the Big Valley Drive crossing near 56th, with no alert system, in a curve in an area where the trains are discouraged from honking because it's purely residential.

    1. Cars and trains are not meant to travel on the same pathways, but we cannot prevent them from intersecting here and there. Defensive driving is a must.

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  7. I can totally understand her need to reach out to you. It probably helped her to contact you. Your compassion came thru on the telecast.
    My cousin and her daughter were killed in an accident of train vs car in Idaho many years ago. I fear my daily in counter of train crossing, especially when whisle sounds, it goes right thru me.

    1. May you find peace.The departed ,do not want you to mourn, but rejoice in the life you have now.Love is all we need.

    2. We are all in this world together...with trains. Sorry for your loss too. May your loving relatives rest in peace.

  8. May the Grace of God look over you all.Thanks for the courage Shirley to carry the family through this disaster,to the courage of Rick,for telling this story,as well as the original.May you all now have closure,and live life knowing,you have done the right thing. Amen

  9. Thank you for this heartfelt story. Good job.

    1. Thanks chopready. Everyone who sees this story will learn something. Rick