At 4:20 PM on Saturday, November 8 I was wrapping up a day of raking and dragging leaves from my front yard into the woods behind the house. As the sun was slowly dipping toward the western horizon late on a peaceful autumn afternoon, the many long hours of labor were ending. I was tired but satisfied because my work, though menial, had purpose and meaning.
At that very moment, exactly five miles to the ENE, the few short years of a young man’s life were ending. But the sun did not set slowly and gently on Jonathan Gregorie. His end was not peaceful. Death took him in the bright morning of his life: suddenly, harshly, violently. Jonathan and some friends had ventured out onto the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle that crosses the James River near Riverside Park. It was the second time in less than a week that this 21-year-old Liberty University senior had risked his life on that busy railroad bridge. He ignored the danger signs. He flaunted the no trespassing signs. Like so many others before him, he consciously chose to gamble with Death. He embraced the risks associated with walking across this high, open, treacherous, windswept span for the view, for the photo ops, for the thrill, for the adrenalin rush, for… well, we can only speculate. Jonathan carried his motivations with him to the grave. Because whether he realized it or not, when you are foolish enough to venture out to the middle of that trestle your life is in pawn. You are utterly vulnerable. Trains approaching the trestle come around a bend that obscures them from view until they are almost upon you. By the time the engineer saw Jonathan it was too late to stop. By the time Jonathan saw the train, it was too late to run.
I never met Jonathan Gregorie. Based on the postings and comments of his friends, he was a fine young man; a man with a zest for life; a man with a bright and promising future ahead of him. I can only hope that his few years on this earth were rich and full and endued with great meaning and purpose. Because his death was utterly meaningless. My day spent raking leaves had more meaning and worth than Jonathan’s bloody death beneath the wheels of that freight train. All of his dreams and aspirations; all of his hopes and goals; all of his potential; all that he ever was or ever would be—snuffed out like a candle. A few moments of high excitement followed by a few seconds of sheer terror. Then Jonathan Gregorie became the third young person in as many years to meet Death on the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle—another tragic, meaningless, utterly pointless death.
A Facebook flame war has arisen surrounded Jonathan’s death. Some posts have lamented the pointlessness of a death directly attributable to behavior that was objectively reckless in nature. Others, mostly friends of the victim, have angrily defended Jonathan, likening criticism about the circumstances of his death with a condemnation of his life and values. At the very least, they argue, lectures about recklessness should be put on hold until the dead are buried and a period of mourning has been observed.
I respectfully disagree. We honor Jonathan Gregorie by our criticisms of his foolish behavior. For if we can dissuade just one person from repeating this young man’s foolish and tragic choice, then in some small measure we can give meaning to an otherwise meaningless tragedy. If by the example of his death, other lives are saved, then he will not have died in vain.