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Lingering Agony : Tragedy: A year later, Hashu Waney finds the railroad and city of Del Mar recalcitrant about doing anything about the conditions that led to his wife’s death.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was shortly after daybreak Thursday as the solitary manwalked slowly along the train tracks outside the Del Mar station--a small paper bag yielding three bright-yellow roses tucked under his arm.

As morning commuters rushed past in the pale early-morning light, some darting across the two steel ribbons of track from a nearby parking lot, Hashu Waney stopped at a spot he has come to know all too well and gently placed the flowers along the inside rail.

Then he lingered for a few moments in silent prayer--a simple gesture to recall the memory of his wife, Usha, who was killed on the same spot exactly one year ago Thursday as she ran to catch what she thought was a Los Angeles-bound passenger train.

Nearby, Lee Kaiser stood in a leather pilot’s jacket--a would-be hero who had also returned to quietly pay respects to his own wife, Roberta Halpern. On that terrible day, the newlyweds had tried in vain to pull the fallen Waney from the path of a freight train.

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Roberta Halpern was struck and killed for her Samaritan efforts, and her husband was injured. All the while, scores of morning commuters who were milling about the adjacent depot platform looked on in horror.

On Thursday, these two former strangers hugged one another like brothers. They talked of the one tragic moment they would always share. And of the women who had left them behind.

Kaiser is still too grief-stricken to talk publicly about the loss of his wife, a 44-year-old cancer researcher. But Hashu Waney feels that talking may somehow overcome his loss.

“We talked about how fast the past year has gone by,” Waney said later, recalling their conversation. “For both of us, it’s as though it happened yesterday.”

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For Waney, a 59-year-old production manager at a fashion design company, where he worked along with his wife, the past year has been one of stubborn refusal to release strongly held memories of the energetic Usha.

Even after the accident, as winter and spring gave way to summer and then autumn--through last Christmas, Valentine’s Day and finally, Thanksgiving--he has kept constant vigil.

On the fifth day of each month since her death on Dec. 5, 1990, Waney has returned to the station to lay flowers on the place where she died--long-stemmed roses picked from the front-yard garden they had planted together.

And then he waits for the departure of the 6:49 a.m. northbound train that his wife would have caught, once again bidding silent farewell to the woman as soft and gentle as the rose petals he leaves in her honor.

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“I live with it every day--every morning I wake up, and every night I go to bed,” Waney said of his wife’s death. “I come home from work to an empty house. It’s a huge house. But, without her, it’s absolutely empty.”

But there is also an anger that has slowly turned his sadness to resentment.

No one--not the railroad, Amtrak, the city of Del Mar or the parking lot operator--even thought to send his family a note expressing any grief over his wife’s violent death.

Worse, Waney says, almost nothing has been done in the past year to remedy the dangerous circumstances at the station he says contributed to the accident.

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Both Waney and Kaiser have filed lawsuits against Amtrak, the Santa Fe Railway, which owns the track right of way and the operator of the adjacent parking lot--claiming officials knew of the popular but dangerous shortcut and did nothing to prevent it.

Shortly after the accident, the parking lot owner extended a chain-link fence across the old shortcut between his lot and the depot. But soon, anxious commuters blazed a new path around the end of the new fence.

Every day, Hashu Waney says, scores of unthinking rail commuters continue to cross the tracks on their way from the parking lot to the red-brick station and its expansive platform.

Especially after hearing the shrill whistle of an approaching train, the well-dressed career women in high-heeled shoes, the young children, the men carrying brief cases and smoking pipes, all hurriedly pick their way across the loose gravel and shiny tracks--within a few feet of where Usha Waney died.

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That same fateful dash is what killed the 47-year-old San Diego clothing designer who traveled frequently by train. At 6:35 a.m. on the day she died, Waney parked her car in the western parking lot--one of two lots that straddle the Del Mar station.

Mistaking the whistle of a freight train for her northbound passenger train, Waney and a group of others hurried to cross the tracks before the approaching train. But, carrying a briefcase full of business papers and fabric samples, Waney quickly fell behind.

Crossing the tracks at the shortcut, she tripped and struck her head on the inside rail. Despite the efforts of Kaiser and Halpern to rescue her, the mother of three died instantly as the wheels of the 2,000-ton locomotive pulled her beneath its powerful frame.

Halpern was sideswiped by the metal behemoth and died several hours later.

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Kaiser, a 37-year-old design engineer, has made the painful return to the place now and then to commemorate his bride of three months. But it is Hashu Waney who has come back like clockwork.

In past visits, he has scrawled down the name of the fence-maker, planning to call them with an offer to personally pay for the fence to be continued 30 yards farther south to the nearest marked crossing.

Sometimes, he has scolded nervous passengers who have stepped over the tracks right in front of him--some even using canes to make their way across.

“Every time I go there, I see them cross,” he said. “It hurts me so much. Last month, I saw this old couple with their daughter cross a few feet away from where Usha died. I said, ‘Don’t cross here. I lost a very dear person here, doing the same thing at this very spot.’

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“But they just looked at me blankly. And they kept on walking.”

As they waited for a northbound train Thursday morning, several commuters said they had not forgotten the violent accident that took place at the station. Some say they have even seen Waney standing by the tracks with flowers in his hand. Or talking with a nearby cab driver.

Some passengers say they have changed their habits because of the death and asked how many more people had to die before a proper pedestrian crossing is installed. Still others merely scoffed at fate, saying they’ll continue to cross the tracks wherever they please.

“Every time I come near this place, I think about that incident,” said Ann Mayo, a nurse who travels regularly by train. “Just knowing about it makes me come to the station a little earlier in the morning--so I don’t have to make that dash across the tracks.”

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Another man standing on the platform said he hadn’t heard of the death.

“I wouldn’t care if 50 people got killed here, I’ll still cross,” he said, refusing to offer his name. “When the train comes through here, you’ll hear it, you’ll see it bearing down.

“There are no safeguards in life. You see the train, you get the hell out of the way. How old was this woman--85 years old? What was her problem?”

Lawyers for Hashu Waney say there was nothing at all wrong with his wife--that it’s the station that has problems.

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And, they say, the inherent dangers of the crossing were known to Amtrak and the railway long before the accident.

“They all knew about it--many (employees) had even seen people using the shortcut--but no one posted any warnings or considered any type of alternative safe crossing,” said attorney Valentine Hoy, adding that both lawsuits could be settled out of court before the April 10 trial date.

“Meanwhile, hundreds of people a week used the crossing. Since the lawsuits, there have been cross-complaints filed as well. All of the parties are pointing the finger at one another.”

Mike Martin, a spokesman for Santa Fe, said he could not discuss details of the accident or possible remedies because of the pending lawsuit.

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He also said it was not the policy of Santa Fe to send letters of apology to families of the numerous people who are killed while trespassing on the railroad’s rights of way. So far this year, he said, about half a dozen pedestrians have been killed by trains in San Diego County.

Although he said the railroad has not yet heard of Waney’s request to extend the fence, he did not rule out the prospect of that being done before the 1906-vintage station is closed within the next few years to make way for a new commuter rail station.

“I don’t know how that idea would be received,” he said of the proposed fence-extension project. “Certainly, there would be advantages to closing the gap people use to cross the tracks. But we’re not in the position to do anything until the lawsuit is settled.”

Standing on the platform, however, Hashu Waney is left with the same unanswered questions: Why did his wife run for the train? And why did she leave him alone to raise the couple’s three children--including their 24-year-old daughter, who is emotionally disabled and has recently thrown tantrums, demanding her mother’s return.

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“Usha, if you had only looked at your watch,” he said to himself, “you would have known you had plenty of time.”

Although his wife’s sister has come to live with the family since her death, Hashu Waney feels alone, he says. Not long ago, Waney collapsed at work and spent four days in the hospital under observation for what doctors say are possible heart problems.

For Hashu Waney, it might as well be a broken heart.

Now the boat he and his wife once used to cruise Mission Bay sits unused--as it has since the day she died. Waney doesn’t know when he’ll use it again. Possibly, he says, on the day he finally admits that Usha really won’t be coming home again.

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“Sometimes, I still tell myself she’s on a long trip someplace, and that I’ll be getting a call from her, telling me to come pick her up at the airport. I sit and I wait.

“Then reality finally hits. And reality hurts.”


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