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Festival stunned by heartbreaking suicide

Published July 26. 2014 09:00AM

It was the perfect weekend for a Civil War-themed salute, and the town of Danville knows how to do it right.

Their annual Iron Heritage Festival emphasizes authenticity.

The four-day showcase last week brought to town some of the big names in living history.

Both sides of the Civil War were represented.

There was General and Mrs. Robert E. Lee, portrayed by distinguished Frank and Bonnie Orlando of Gettysburg.

"Listen to what I tell you because you'll learn the truth about the war," said Gen. Lee, before Friday's gala parade.

A large contingent of the Confederation of Union Generals was on hand. The Gettysburg-based members and their wives dress to the hilt in authentic period costume, each representing a specific character and well-versed on historic details.

Well-known Jim Getty of Gettysburg, famous for portraying Abraham Lincoln, developed health issues and had to cancel.

But in his place, another Honest Abe portrayer, James Hayney of Camp Hill, amazed the crowd with his presidential bearing.

Saturday's events kicked off with the first scenic train excursion on the eight-car North Shore Railroad. The ride takes passengers to Bloomsburg and, alternately, Northumberland. But on this day, the trips came to a grinding halt.

The train, loaded with sightseers, began to pull away at 10 a.m., traveling only 6 mph, when reality kicked in.

A 21-year-old man, believed to be a transient from Virginia, waited for just the right moment to dive in between the train wheels. He was killed instantly, decapitated.

The body was found positioned face-down, wearing camouflage pants, dark shirt and dark shoes. Found near the body was a backpack.

The train continued on a two-hour trip, riders and crew unaware. But someone in the caboose looked back and saw what appeared to be legs at the railroad tracks and radioed back to the boarding area.

Meanwhile, a distraught female witness had seen what happened and called 911.

Police and firefighters rushed to the scene, cordoning off the area so that festival attendees wouldn't see the horror. They used fire hoses to clean the railroad tracks. All of the other excursions were canceled. Ticket holders were given refunds.

Understandably, the tragedy cast a pall over the festival. I was giving demonstrations of the highwheel bike as I've done at Danville for the past several years. My station was situated just a few steps from the railroad tracks at the scene of the tragedy. It was hard to smile all day long.

"It put a damper on the entire day," agreed volunteer Ted Swank, who mans the Mill Street rail crossing while dressed as an engineer.

The death was ruled suicide. Police figured the victim, seen lurking in the vicinity since Friday, apparently waited for just the right moment to end his life. There was nothing anybody could do to stop him.

Why he chose to do it in the middle of a crowded street fair is something I'll never understand.

But I don't pass judgment.

One year ago I lost lifelong friend Richard to suicide. He had everything to live for. He took his life over the Fourth of July holiday in the serenity of a state park. I can't make sense of it. His passing still hurts me and many others.

I'm convinced we'll never understand the workings of the mind and the circumstances that cause some people to do the unthinkable.

If depression is the root cause, there's good news. Depression is very treatable, and help is available.

Sadly, the young man who killed himself Saturday did it within a few blocks of 1,500 doctors and nurses at Geisinger Medical Center, all of whom would've gladly come to his aid.

If you feel down and it lasts for many days, it's time to seek help.

And don't worry, there's no shame in feeling depressed. It's not your fault.

The important thing is to get help right away.

Don't hold it inside, and don't try to deal with it yourself.

Tell others about it. Go to the doctor, or ask someone to take you there.

No matter how bleak things seem to be, there are people who care about you.

And that, alone, is reason to smile.

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