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Trainman Cited for Saving 2-Year-Old from Moving Train

March 20, 1986

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Trainman John Kohl says anyone would have tried to rescue a little girl from an oncoming train, but what he did - leaning from a moving locomotive to shove her off the tracks - earned him a heroism award Thursday.

″You can measure the distance between life and death by the length of his arm. It was an extraordinary action,″ said John Riley, head of the Federal Railway Administration, who presented Kohl with a medal and plaque. ″He had to put his life absolutely at risk, and he did it without even thinking.″

Kohl was honored with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s highest civilian heroism award for saving the life of 2-year-old Jeanne Defibaugh last summer.

On July 27, Kohl’s 62-car Conrail freight train was rumbling through Cresson in central Pennsylvania when the crew noticed Jeanne in the middle of the tracks. The train, traveling at 20 to 25 mph, began an emergency stop and whistled, but the terrified child ran along the track instead of going to the side.

Kohl, 42, climbed out of the cabin onto a metal frame called a snow plow or cowcatcher. He braced his right foot on a ladder, grabbed an iron railing with his right hand and leaned out in front of the locomotive.

With a sweep of his left arm, Kohl swatted the girl aside.

″I just reacted. In a situation like that, you don’t weigh anything. You just do it. Probably anyone would have done something,″ said Kohl, a Conrail employee of 22 years and father of two children.

News accounts brought the rescue to the attention of department officials.

″There was no time to stop. In a split second or two, we were on top of her. She was petrified. I moved my arm in an upsweep, grabbed her clothes and popped her up in the air out of the way,″ said Kohl, of Northumberland, Pa.

″I was startled when I first saw her. I said, ‘Oh, honey, get off the rail.’ From then on, I just reacted,″ said Kohl. ″I swept her out of the way, and she landed on her belly.″

The train finally stopped more than 200 feet past where Jeanne was sitting. The episode took less than a minute from the time she was spotted until the train stopped.

″I ran back and picked her up to try to calm her. She was crying and in shock. I wanted to comfort her,″ said Kohl. ″After I picked her off the ground and held her, it go to me. I really got nervous.″

Except for minor cuts, the girl was unhurt, officials said.

Jeanne’s parents, who had been visiting friends near the tracks, rushed out to thank Kohl. Last Christmas, Kohl sent the girl a teddy bear, and her parents sent him Jeanne’s picture.

The department’s honor was last awarded two years ago. Kohl has also been cited by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, a private foundation, and will receive a commission medal and a check for $2,500 at an April 7 ceremony at Conrail headquarters in Philadelphia.

″This was in the best tradition of the railroad. This is what railroad lore is all about,″ said L. Stanley Crane, Conrail’s chairman and chief executive officer, who attended the award presentation.

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