Roommate: UND student found dead along railroad tracks often used short cut
The UND student found dead Saturday morning in the Grand Forks rail yard was apparently taking a short cut between his apartment and campus, according to police and his roommate.
He may have clambered over or through a train blocking his way, said Lt. Jim Remer with the Grand Forks Police Department.
Blake Ayling, 20, was a sophomore from Minneapolis working toward a major in entrepreneurship, according to the university. He was on the President's Roll of Honor and the Dean's List.
"He was just a real go-getter, kind of an entrepreneur, really dedicated to school," said his roommate Dan Frost from Bemidji. "He has a lot of friends at UND and in Minneapolis. He was kind of a day-brightener kind of guy who really lifted your spirits when you were around him. He really took advantage of life."
Frost mourned with Ayling's parents Monday. They were in Grand Forks to meet with UND President Robert Kelley, other UND officials and police, university spokesman Peter Johnson said.
"We extend our sympathy and heartfelt condolences to Blake's family and many friends at UND and elsewhere," Kelley said Monday in a news release.
Ayling's body was spotted about 7:30 a.m. Saturday by BNSF Railway employees in the rail yard that lies between the adjacent campus in the north and Demers Avenue in the south.
Frost said he last saw Ayling Friday at the apartment they shared south of Ray Richards Golf Course, which is south of Demers.
"He had left our apartment at, I would say, 9:30 (p.m.) and went out to go hang out with a friend," on campus, Frost said. "He always walked to campus and that usually meant crossing the golf course and crossing Demers and that railroad track. We have a friend who saw him at 1 a.m. (on campus), so we think it was some time after that. He was just walking home."
Ayling apparently was crossing the rail yard very near UND's water tower west of the Columbia Road overpass when the accident happened, Frost said. "He was always about short-cutting, just walking everywhere."
"It appears he was trying to cross the train somehow," Remer said. "It appears he was just trying to go between (two cars)."
Remer said he is unsure if the train was moving at the time, if Ayling crossed one train and was hit and dragged by another. Ayling's injuries appeared related to being dragged "for a short distance" by a train, Remer said, but Ayling was not run over by an engine or car.
Whether alcohol played a factor in the death is not known to police, Remer said. "It's a possibility, speaking to people that knew him, but we don't have anything definitively."
An autopsy was conducted Monday in Grand Forks, but no results were available yet, Remer said.
There are no known witnesses to the incident and police are hoping someone with information about it will come forward, Remer said.
"This is a tragic reminder that all railroad property is private property and it's extremely dangerous for anyone to trespass on railroad property," said Amy McBeth, Twin Cities spokeswoman for BNSF.
She said there are about 25 tracks in the yard, where 10 to 15 trains pass through, originate or terminate each day.
"There is activity in that yard 24 hours a day," McBeth said. "What happens is that trains are being built or broken down, cars are being placed on different tracks, switched from train to train, and there are through trains."
There are no crossings anywhere in the rail yard, and many signs warning the public of the danger, she said. "There's no reason for anyone to be in there."
Some of the signs warn that some trains are operated remotely, without an engineer on board.
Erecting a barrier isn't always practical, McBeth said. "We do put up fences in some areas, but we can't fence the entire railroad."
In August, the city of Grand Forks started a "quiet zone" along the Demers corridor and downtown so trains need not sound their horns at railroad crossings, a trend in many cities in the region.
While railroad experts say such quiet zones usually lead to more pedestrian/train collisions at crossings, McBeth said that doesn't apply to the rail yard where there are no crossings.
And engineers still must, and do, sound their horns whenever there is an apparent emergency of someone or something on the tracks ahead of a train, she said.
Johnson, who was a student at UND in 1976 and has worked there decades, said he can't remember a similar incident of a student being killed by a train in the rail yard.
Periodically, often at the behest of BNSF, messages are sent out on campus about the dangers of trespassing on railroad property.
There has not been any reported problem of students trespassing on the tracks, or discussions of any plan to limit access to the rail yard in some way, Johnson said. "I suspect this is a conversation we will have going forward."
Kelley also said the University Counseling Center would be available for students who needed its services. Appointments can be made by calling (701) 777-2127. The center can be visited online by going to UND.edu/health-wellness/counseling-center.
He said faculty and staff are welcome to consult UND's Employee Assistance Plan if they feel they may need counseling. It can be found online at UND.edu/finance-operations/human-resources/eap.cfm.