On the worst night of her life, 15-year-old Shirley Overton sat at home in shock with what was left of her family.
In her daze, the teenager watched a young KCCI-TV news anchor deliver the gruesome details of the crash during the 10 o’clock broadcast.
The anchor, Rick Fredericksen, 26, sported a bushy beard and looked like a cool guy, she thought.
“I’m going to remember Rick Fredericksen,” she pledged to herself, “because he’s the one that told the story first.”
That one afternoon in 1976 has cast a shadow over Shirley’s life. What the mind and body absorb in the throes of shock, with lingering effects that may bubble to the surface years later, can be impossible to fully predict.
For instance, Shirley can’t forget the sizzling hamburger in the frying pan. That was the family’s first sign that something was wrong. The taco meat that Mom had left on the stove was getting a little too crispy.
That frazzled mother, Pat Overton, darted out of the house with three of her children to pick up a fourth child at a local swimming pool not far away. She already had started dinner and expected to return in a matter of minutes.
It was a humid summer day that July 1, 1976, on the east side of Des Moines.
Overton, 46, was a registered nurse whose husband, Alvin, was a Des Moines police sergeant. At the time they had 10 children.
But Overton and four of those kids never made it back home.
That afternoon, the entire carload was killed in an instant when their green Chevy Caprice was crushed by an oncoming train on Northeast 56th Street in Pleasant Hill.
The banner headline on the front page of the Des Moines Register, “CAR-TRAIN CRASH KILLS 5,” ran with photos of all five victims and a picture of their mangled sedan. David, 12, had been the boy swimming that afternoon. He and his mother died along with siblings Michael, 7; Alvin Jr., 4; and Sarah, 2.
The train — two engines and 54 rail cars chugging along at 30 mph — pushed the Chevy more than two football fields down the tracks before grinding to a halt.
It was 5:05 p.m.
Shirley had been across the street from the family home, baby-sitting for neighbors.
Worried about their mother’s delay, Shirley’s twin sister, Sharon, and 17-year-old brother, Tim, drove the route to the pool to see if the car had stalled or run out of gas.
“I knew it was going to be bad,” said Sharon, now Sharon Harmon who lives not far from the accident site in Pleasant Hill.
“I still picture the car there. I see it in my head.”
The worst was confirmed for the six surviving siblings — including Sue Ellen, 14; Sandra; 10; and Sally, 6 — when their father finally returned home in the medical examiner’s car. His eyes red and swollen, he handed Shirley her mother’s purse.
“That was all it took,” Shirley said, for her to realize that everyone in the car had died.
Today, Shirley Overton Evans and her husband of 38 years, Dan, live just blocks away from where she grew up on the east side.
By so many measures, time rolled along in the wake of the tragedy as the Overtons rebuilt their lives, forged careers, moved to different cities and started families of their own.
Shirley’s father remarried in August 1977 and moved to West Des Moines. He died six years ago.
Shirley worked for 32 years at an insurance company in downtown Des Moines and now works at a drug store. The walls of her home are decorated with photos of her three children and nine grandchildren.
But Shirley keeps the photos of her parents and siblings tucked away, pulling them out only when she feels like she has the time and strength for a good cry.
Fredericksen, 68, worked nearly half a century as a journalist before retiring last year from Iowa Public Radio. He began reporting as a young Marine, served for years as CBS’ bureau chief in Bangkok, Thailand, and was trained to not get too involved in the stories he covered.
This was a first for him when Shirley, a stranger, reached out last year on Facebook with her short, cryptic message: “Did you work at KCCI in 1976?”
“Yes, what can I do for you?” Fredericksen replied.
“I just wondered if you remember reporting on a car-train accident that killed my mom, three brothers and my sister. I’ve been an avid news person — Channel 8, and I watched it that night and remember you telling the story. I remember your beard. I wish I would have known you were still there as I would have reached out sooner.”
Fredericksen didn’t immediately remember the crash from among a lifetime of reporting. But he and Shirley developed a halting correspondence.
She wanted to meet.
Fredericksen eventually looped me into their discussion, correctly assuming that I would be intrigued by this story of a retired journalist who had been oblivious to the connection forged through the TV screen in the early years of his career.
I once accompanied Fredericksen on his first visit to the gravesite of his Danish grandfather who immigrated to America. Here was another pilgrimage that offered a more complicated jumble of emotions.
“I’m anxious,” he said during our drive to Shirley’s house. “I feel a little bit like I’m going to a funeral, but it could be more of a family celebration than anything.”
When we walked through the front door, she and Fredericksen immediately embraced.
We sat down for a far-ranging conversation. Shirley remarked on his clean-shaven face.
No stranger to war stories, Fredericksen told Shirley that her quest “reminds me of war veterans going back to their battlefields in search of some sort of closure or answer.”
The year after the accident, The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that Pat Overton ultimately was at fault in the crash.
It also admonished the two drivers who crossed the tracks just ahead of the mother, while the lights were flashing. (There were no crossing arms blocking the roadway.)
But the board also redoubled its “nationwide cooperative effort” to improve rail crossings, a safety program that by 1984 was credited with a 46 percent drop in crossing deaths.
The crash’s immediate impact on the Overtons was dramatic and apparent. Shirley remembers her father, overcome with grief while sequestered in his bedroom, having to be separated from his loaded gun by another relative.
Shirley had a meltdown at her wedding two years later, a moment when she was hit with the ache of her mother’s absence. She has cycled through prescriptions for anxiety and depression.
She panics whenever she hears a siren, or when family members are absent for too long.
More than once while on hunting trips in the era before cellphones, Dan was pulled over by a local sheriff and told to call home because Shirley was frantically trying to reach him.
Shirley has visited a series of psychologists and still attends counseling with a psychiatrist. Her various therapy strategies once included writing a letter to her mother to say goodbye.
For Sharon, something as simple as a hot, humid day — the thick feel of the air that July 1 — may trigger her trauma. She remembers “walking the halls like a zombie” during her last two years of high school.
“I shake when I talk about it,” Sharon said when I phoned her. “And I’m shaking now. That’s what it does to me. I shake. And it never goes away.”
The Overtons’ tragedy made me think about all the other families who have struggled through a lifetime of post-traumatic stress and grief in the aftermath of losing so much at once.
I thought of the victims of the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting. Eight members of the Holcombe family — one of them pregnant — died in the same bloody horror.
That family’s toll included a girl as young as 17 months and one nuclear family where three of five siblings were gunned down.
A kindergartner from another family was shot five times. He survived but lost his mother and two sisters.
Shirley’s advice: “Get help, first and foremost. Therapy is the only thing that’s really gotten me through,” she said.
Sharon credits her Catholic faith. She recently returned from a religious pilgrimage to Spain, Portugal and France.
But time, distance and the best counseling do not necessarily make these people feel completely whole.
“I don’t know how I ever survived, to be honest,” Sharon said.
“It’s cathartic for me to talk to people that remember it, because I never want anybody to forget about them,” Shirley wrote to Fredericksen. “I want to holler over the rooftops what happened to our family. Bringing it to the surface helps me cope.”
Shirley and Fredericksen’s rare connection made me think of the extended alternative family that we journalists cultivate throughout our careers. We drift in and out of people’s lives, sometimes forging incredibly intimate links with them at their most vulnerable or tragic moments.
This constant access to such raw and real everyday humanity is central to journalism’s magic. But it’s accompanied by the melancholy of leaving most of these “family members” behind.
I like how Fredericksen put it to Shirley: “I really consider it a responsibility,” he said of the newfound friendship he wants to maintain.
When Shirley was an impressionable teen, Frederickson’s face and voice were seared into her memory on the worst day of her life.
To be able to reach out and finally meet him more than 40 years later was something tangible and within her grasp, unlike her mother and four dead siblings. I totally get that.
“Hug your family and say ‘I love you’ every day, every time you separate from each other,” Shirley said. “Because I didn’t get that chance. And it makes me feel bad that I went through all of that and didn’t say goodbye or anything. So I had to wait until I saw five caskets to tell them that I loved them.”
That may sound trite, particularly around the holidays. But it doesn’t sound that way to me when I hear Shirley say it.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or [email protected] See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to note that Sharon was not baby-sitting with twin sister Shirley the afternoon of July 1, 1976.
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