LE LOUP (AP) — Eric Harris loved to drive the countryside when it was raining.
A trait he inherited from his grandfather, Harris would drive the roads of Franklin County in east-central Kansas when thunderstorms rolled into the area.
“Any time a storm or rain would come in, he’d drive around to see what all got hit and rained on,” said his stepmother, Janet Harris of Wellsville.
On Sept. 13, 1998, a stormy day in Franklin County, Eric Harris, who was 23 at the time, was on his way from Baldwin City to his Wellsville home when his pickup truck was struck by a train at the railroad crossing on Ohio Terrace about a mile west of Le Loup.
“Around 4:30 p.m., the Franklin County sheriff came a calling, and I knew something was wrong but never thought Eric would be in a vehicle accident,” Janet Harris said.
Eric Harris’ vehicle was southbound on Ohio Terrace, and the train was westbound at the time of the accident, authorities said. His pickup was thrown about 200 feet by the impact of the collision, and Harris was pronounced dead at the scene.
“It is easy to understand how this could have happened because Eric was high-pitch tone deaf,” Janet Harris said. “If he could not have heard it, then he might not have been able to see the train.”
But Harris’ accident was just one of a number of wrecks at the crossing on Ohio Terrace before the area received crossing arms in 2004.
In 2000, the Kansas Department of Transportation declared the railroad crossing on the road one of the 10 most dangerous crossings in the state after several accidents there. Because of the designation, the road either had to be closed or railroad crossing arms had to be installed.
“I don’t think the public at the time knew how much train traffic there is on that line,” Sheriff Craig Davis said.
He said initially, brush was an issue in visibility at the crossing.
“There were bushes and trees on the left and right of you,” Janet Harris said. “You couldn’t see what you were looking at.”
Eventually, visibility increased after the brush was cleared, Davis said.
“Primarily, I think people didn’t pay attention,” he said of what made the site so dangerous.
Following Eric Harris’ death and a number of close calls, the Franklin County Commission approved placing stop signs at the crossing in 1999 and even began considering closing Ohio Terrace pending the installation of crossing arms.
Many citizens protested the closing of the road, however, saying it would create a burden on farm and emergency vehicles.
Janet Harris said she wrote a letter to the commission about action that needed to be taken on the road.
“I asked them, how many more lives is it going to take and how many more times of police or sheriff’s officers knocking on your door telling you that your loved one had been killed?” she said.
The crossing arms finally were installed in 2004. Eighty percent of the cost was paid by KDOT, with the remaining costs being paid by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, County Public Works Director Jim Haag said. The total cost was $126,448, he said.
“Since it’s had the crossing arms, there hasn’t been any accidents that I know of,” Davis said.
After the installation of the crossing arms, Janet Harris wrote to The Ottawa Herald, thanking the commission for its safety improvement on Ohio Terrace.
“The crossing arms may have been costly, but the loss of a child is much greater,” she wrote.
At the time of his death, Eric Harris, who was the son of Eugene Harris, was engaged to Carla Turner and soon would have been the stepfather of Cassie Turner.
“But both Carla and Cassie are part of our family to this day,” Janet Harris said.