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Oh my God, there's a child on the tracks!

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi

A Southern Pacific Railroad Fireman named James Rolls risked his life in an attempt to save a little child right in front of the Tehachapi Depot. It was April 1, 1952, and Fireman Rolls was onboard a freight train that had pulled off on the No. 1 siding track in Tehachapi to let a fast passenger train, the Santa Fe "Grand Canyon Limited" go by. As that eastbound passenger train bore down on Tehachapi, Santa Fe Engineer Sammy Uren was sickened when he saw a little blond-haired two-year-old girl standing on the main line.

The engineer of the Santa Fe No. 24 knew he couldn't stop in time, but he laid on his brakes and started blowing a series of short whistle blasts in a desperate attempt to scare that little girl off the tracks. Fireman Rolls heard the whistle blowing and he looked out to see why, and he spotted that little baby. Without a second's hesitation, Fireman Rolls launched himself across the engine cab and leaped out the door on the engineer's side of the locomotive. His train was still moving, though it was on the siding track. James Rolls slid down the long grab iron and hit the ground running, racing towards that little girl as the big diesel passenger train was coming right at both of them.

Engineer Rolls charged across 55 feet of road bed running as fast as he could, his feet kicking up gravel with every frantic step. His arms were outstretched and his heart was beating in his throat. He reached that little girl, whose name was Fay Williamson, scooped her up as he ran and his momentum carried them both to safety onto the other side of the tracks. With its brakes screaming, and Engineer Uren preparing to shield his eyes from the impending tragedy, the Santa Fe Grand Canyon Limited ground to a halt several car lengths down the track from where the toddler and the fireman had been....

It turns out that little girl had been playing with some other kids about a block away, and she innocently wandered away from the group that no adult had been supervising. Years later I worked for the railroad with Mr. Rolls' son, and he was a good guy too. His Dad had four kids, including a little girl who was 18 months old when that incident happened, and I guess his fatherly instincts gave him extra courage when he saw a speeding train headed for that baby. It was really something heroic and unforgettable, and it happened right by our depot on a warm April day in 1952.

– Rufus Thomas

Rufus Thomas is a longtime Tehachapi resident, a retired railroad conductor and a talented artist.