Samantha Alvelo has thanked God for saving her young life after a train rolled over her three decades ago in Havelock, but she has always wanted to thank Joe.
She finally got that chance on Friday night.
Alvelo completed a decade-long search for the railroad worker she credits with saving her life when she talked with Joe Dunn on the phone on Friday night.
“I got to say what I felt all those years to the person who stood out for me that day and saved my life,” said Alvelo, who lives in York, Pa. “It felt so good speaking to him over the phone. It felt like I had accomplished something really good in my life. It just felt so important to me to let him know that what he did, I appreciated it.
“There were so many other people that benefited from his heroic actions that day, and for his quick thinking, the fact that he didn’t freeze up, the fact that I’m alive and that there are other people that benefited from that. There’s hearts that weren’t broken because I got to live and that, to me, deserves for me to say thank you. Face to face, over the phone, I just wanted him to know that I was grateful for that action.
“He had a very happy tone to his voice. I don’t think that he ever expected to hear from me again, but in many ways I think it touched his heart to know that I went out of my way to seek him. That’s what I felt.”
Alvelo has no memory of the May 14, 1982 incident that almost took her life. She was 18 months old and playing with her 2-year-old cousin, Shaniena Tampakov, on the railroad tracks near their home on Railroad Street in Havelock.
Coming up the tracks, engineer Gerald Johnson was at the controls of a fully loaded Southern Railway train with Dunn as the conductor. Dunn had unsuccessfully tried to get off the run through Havelock that day but there he was aboard the 100-car train moving at 20 mph when he and Johnson noticed something on the tracks ahead.
“By the time we realized it was children, I
didn’t think we were going to get stopped,” Dunn said.
Johnson hit the brakes on the locomotive and sounded the whistle. Dunn said he bolted from the engineer’s cab onto the platform. Waving his arms, he frantically shouted, “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”
Tampakov was standing at the edge of the tracks, but Alvelo was sitting between the rails as the 71,000-ton engines came upon her. It became apparent to Dunn that the children were going to be struck by the grab iron, or cowcatcher, a low metal skirt just inches off the ground that is designed to clear the tracks ahead of the locomotive.
“I hollered for her to lay down and she laid down just like I hollered,” Dunn said of Alvelo. “If she hadn’t, it would have cut her in two. It would have clipped her head right off.”
Tampakov, on the side of the rails, was knocked clear of the train after being struck in the jaw by the step assembly. Alvelo, though, disappeared below the train as the two locomotives eventually screeched to a stop. Rescuers found the toddler unconscious under the rear axle of the second locomotive.
“My mom said that she was so afraid that I had passed away because I wasn’t moving,” Alvelo said. “She was too afraid to come underneath the thing to come and get me. I can’t remember who it was that went under and scooped me out, but I was still breathing. That’s all I’ve ever known.”
Alvelo had just a few scrapes but was otherwise OK, as was her cousin Tampakov, both in the clutches of relatives at the scene.
Eddie Ellis, managing editor for the Havelock Progress who was on the scene that day, dubbed the incident in a headline in the next edition of the paper “The Miracle on Railroad Street.”
“The thing that struck me at the time was that the gentleman (Dunn) on the train had the presence of mind to tell the child to lay down,” Ellis said from his Florida home. “I think a more normal, human reaction would have been to be frozen with terror. He took action and told the child what to do and the corollary to that is the child did what the man said and that was the reason that I considered it to be some sort of miracle at the time.
“The story was received very warmly by the community because it was an actually amazing occurrence that could have certainly ended a lot different than it did. It could have ended in the death of the child, but it didn’t, so we were struck by the miraculous nature of the thing at the moment that it happened.”
Alvelo learned she had survived being run over by a train at age 12 from her mother. It didn’t strike her until she grew older and had a daughter of her own how close she had come to death and how she needed to thank the man responsible for saving her.
“I kept thinking how lucky I was. It didn’t really dawn on me until I got older that ‘Wow, you went under a train and you could have died,’” Alvelo said. “It really doesn’t hit you when you’re that young. When you get older, you’re kind of like ‘Man.’ I’ve frozen up over sillier things. I could not believe him standing there and not freezing up. That’s why it consumed me wanting to say thank you so much.”
She started her search for Dunn about a decade ago with little more than the story relayed to her by her mother and a newspaper clipping.
“I’ve been looking for him since I was about 23 years old because I started having a desire to meet this person that basically saved my life,” said Alvelo, now married at age 33 with four children. “Because of his quick thinking and the Lord having him at work when he wasn’t supposed to be, it all came together, and for me it meant so much to be able to say to him ‘thank you for saving my life and thank you for your quick thinking. Because of you I was able to be alive and get married and have children all because of somebody’s quick thinking.’ To me, that is my hero.”
But, Alvelo’s searches kept coming up empty. On Feb. 23, she contacted the Havelock News, explaining the story that was included in the newspaper’s special 50th anniversary of Havelock section and asking for help in finding Dunn. The paper searched phone books and social media websites, and contacted officials with Norfolk Southern. The railroad company obtained a phone number and the newspaper called Dunn, who now at age 67 had retired and was living in Vanceboro.
Dunn picked up the phone Friday night and soon a woman’s voice was on the other end.
“Oh my gosh. I’ve been trying to find you. How are you?” Alvelo said to Dunn.
“I’m doing good for an old man, I reckon,” Dunn replied laughing. “I tell most people I can still see my shadow.”
The two began to talk about that day in 1982 in which their fates collided on the railroad tracks in Havelock.
“From what the paper clip said I got knocked unconscious, but aside from that, you telling me to lay down saved my life, because God knows what could have happened if that train would have got me the wrong way,” Alvelo said to Dunn.
“Well, if you hadn’t laid down, it would have probably cut you right in half,” Dunn told her.
“Amen on that and you saved my life and I’ve been wanting so many years to just meet you and thank you and everything. I’ve been spending so many years thinking about you because to me you’re my hero,” Alvelo said.
Dunn quickly put aside that notion.
“Well, I’m not a hero,” he told her. “My thing is it had to be the Lord telling me to tell you that because I don’t think that fast, never have. I’m kind of slow, so it had to be the Lord that told me to tell you to do that because on my own I probably wouldn’t have gotten it out fast enough even if I was thinking it, but I was amazed that I just said lay down, and you did.”
“Yes, yes, and that was nothing short of the Lord, but I’ve always said to my mother, ‘To me he’s my hero because he saved my life. My life wouldn’t have been spared if it hadn’t been for him’ and because of you I was spared,” she replied.
Dunn told her that the train’s engineer, Johnson, died about a decade ago, while Alvelo explained that Tampakov was also married with two teenage sons living in Maryland.
They exchanged phone numbers and hoped to plan a face-to-face meeting this summer. Alvelo said she wanted Dunn to meet her husband and children and hoped that Johnson’s family could also be there.
Alvelo said talking to Dunn made her feel like a part of her life had been completed.
“We all just want to embrace him and thank him and present him with an award, and we want to present Mr. Johnson’s son with a gift and let his children know and his family know what a hero he is as well because thanks to their quick thinking we got to grow up,” Alvelo said. “We got to get married. We got to have children, and that means the world to me. There couldn’t have been a gift other than my mother having me that could have been a greater gift given to me.”