Labb remains in critical condition
By Tim Eberly
The football he was tossing in the air before impact was later found wedged in the train's cattleguard. His backpack, which hung from his shoulders, was mutilated.
John Paul Labb was thrown more than 50 feet in the air into a ditch when the 4,000-ton train hit him from behind as he attempted a hazardous shortcut to Jamestown High School in North Dakota on the morning of Sept. 12.
Labb, who had moved to Jamestown from Havre with his father in July, had missed his bus. Despite previous warnings from railroad employees, Labb scooted down an embankment onto Burlington National Santa Fe property so he could make his first class at 8 a.m.
"He had been told this many times before in the past, and had been told by the railroad workers not to come down the tracks because it wasn't safe," said detective Sgt. Jerry Mayer of the Stutsman County Sheriff's Office.
Labb was walking alongside the tracks when the locomotive approached from his blindside, going 33 mph in the 35-mph zone.
"He was flipping the football," Mayer said of Labb, a backup wide receiver/defensive back on the Jamestown High football team. "The train came up behind him and whistled several times at him but he didn't turn around."
Labb never saw the train that paralyzed him from the waist down. He has no recollection of the accident but does remember the train whistle, said Trisha Wymore, Labb's half-sister. No one knows why Labb never turned around or moved from the path of the oncoming train.
Celebrating his 18th birthday Sunday in a hospital bed in Fargo, Labb received among other things a pocket watch and some movie videos from his family.
He has a pair of collapsed lungs, internal bleeding, a broken left arm, two partially crushed vertebrae and pneumonia.
"Being hit at that speed is probably going to break your back no matter what," Mayer said. "But I think the backpack probably absorbed a lot of the impact."
Doctors and nurses at the Innovis Health Hospital, where Labb is in critical condition, have not been positive. Wymore said hospital employees told her that Labb, who is currently in a state of denial about his paralysis, has no chance of walking again.
"They say no but I'm praying that he will because I know people that have broken their backs and they're walking," said Lillian Hammond, John's grandmother and a Havre resident. "Not real good, but they're walking."
One of those people is in the family. John's uncle and Lillian Hammond's son, Billy Sargent, broke his back five years ago in a motorcycle accident and was told he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Today, Sargent not only has the use of his legs but works as a bartender at the Oxford Sports Bar. Another reason for hope is family friend Doug Jenkins, who broke his back in two places but clung to his ability to walk. John's family doesn't want to rule out a third miracle.
"He is such a fighter," said Wymore, 27, who has temporarily moved in with her aunt, Linda Bosworth of Fargo, to be closer to John. "The nurses say they're used to their patients taking baby steps but John is taking leaps and bounds compared to what they're used to."
Three surgeries one 10-hour ordeal to insert rods in his back have been performed on Labb since he was transported 98 miles east from the Jamestown hospital to Fargo. Pneumonia set in after he arrived in Fargo, followed by a dangerous staph infection. During that period, he lost consciousness for a three-day span while his body battled multiple infections, and doctors told Wymore that her little brother might die. Now Labb, who has use of his arms, can sit up in his bed and, since he had a tube removed from his throat Monday, he can talk for brief stretches.
"Don't think I'm crippled because I'm not," he said during a telephone interview Monday afternoon. "I think I will walk again. But don't tell the nurses that because only one nurse said I could walk again."
Not only a black belt in karate, the 5-foot-8, 132-pound Labb cultivated an interest in football. He was a reserve on the junior varsity during his sophomore year at Havre High in 2000-'01. After moving to Jamestown, Labb had yet to record any catches or interceptions for his new team, but he had seen some limited playing time. Though Labb only had five weeks to get acquainted with his teammates, his accident shocked the team.
"It hit our guys pretty tough," Jamestown football coach Bill Cahill said, "even though they didn't know him real well. There was a lot of tears. Alot of our guys have been to visit him."
Jamestown principal Larry Ukestad and assistant principal Bill Nold also visited Labb in the hospital.
"The biggest thing was letting him know that there were people that cared about him," Cahill said.
Mike Leinwand, one of the coaches on Havre's junior varsity football squad, coached Labb last year and was his eighth- grade wrestling coach at Havre Middle School two years ago.
"The change between his eighth-grade year and his sophomore year was pretty dramatic," Leinwand said. "He just seemed like he started making really good choices. He was really coming into his own."
Police investigators have found no fault with the BNSF employees operating the train. The train was not speeding and several of the railroad workers got off the train to assess Labb's injuries when he was struck.
"There are far too many of these situations," said Gus Melonas, a spokesman for the BNSF. In 2000, one fatality resulting from a train accident was recorded in Montana. This year, one death and one injury have been recorded. Numbers for North Dakota were not available today.
"You obviously can't fence a railway property that is 33,500 miles long. All BNSF property is no trespassing. Railroad property is extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, our trains can't stop or swerve to avoid people."