A perfect day, a fateful night; At 26, Bernadette Lewis was blossoming, eager to take her next big step in life. But then she took one fatal misstep.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Her Toyota Corolla collects leaves outside the Paca Street apartment. A Shasta soda can squinches in a cup holder. The passenger-side seat belt is missing on account of Lola, her husky pup, who chewed it off. "Live Tough. Live Hard. Live Rugby" reads Bernadette Lewis' bumper sticker.

Inside her apartment, books cram a squat bookshelf: "The Complete Walker" and "West Virginia Hiking Trails" and "Dog Behavior." Compact discs from the feminist folkie Ani DiFranco lounge about the rowhouse in Ridgely's Delight, a snug community where everybody knows your dog's name.

It's early November and nothing appears disturbed since Saturday, Oct. 23, the night of Bernadette's "BYOP" (bring your own pumpkin) party. One pumpkin, carved into a Cyclops, is still in the window. Husks of Indian corn and harvesty candles still decorate the living room, Martha Stewart-style.

Life burns on, though. Flower arrangements hog the countertops and tables. Carnations, sunflowers and wild flowers are here in memory of the free-spirited one, Bernadette Celeste Lewis, who at age 26 and on the night of her Halloween party, had finally decided what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Bern, as friends called her, already was known in certain Baltimore circles for her work at a local women's health clinic and at a Baltimore HIV-prevention program geared for adolescents. They certainly knew her at Pleasant View Gardens and other city housing developments, where Bern educated teen-agers about the AIDS virus.

But the Baltimore transplant from Wisconsin wanted to make a deeper impact. Bern wanted to be a rural physician, maybe on the Eastern Shore. By the Friday before BYOP, she had completed her applications to several medical schools. By Saturday, she was in the mood for her coming out party. In her black Converse tennis shoes, Bern danced with her dog, told stories on herself, even opened her family photo album for all to see.

"It was an incredible night," says her boyfriend, Su-hun Seo, 28. "I'd never seen her that happy. She finally had a clear vision of her future."

And then Bernadette Lewis made a sober yet curious decision. On this night of her life, she and four friends left her party and headed for a nearby railroad crossing on Ridgely Street in southwest Baltimore. At 2 a.m., the only signs of life in this industrial zone were Bernadette, her friends, and a CSX freight train rolling along at 10 mph.

The train never knew what it hit.

"I'd rather hop freights around the country and cook my food out of tin cans over wood fires, than be rich and have a home or work."

-- "The Dharma Bums," Jack Kerouac

"It's a choice," says Jeffrey Lewis, "I personally have made in my life." Long before he adopted Bernadette when she was 11, Jeff Lewis spent a lot of time around trains. Lewis, 43, grew up near Philadelphia's Main Line commuter railroad and took the train to school every day. He and his mates dodged trains and made sure their parents never knew.

Once, he hopped a moving train in Pittsburgh. He felt for the ladder, the "grab iron," to hoist himself up, but felt the earth moving too fast beneath his feet. There's nothing slow about a slow train. He was lucky. "I just got a nail in my foot."

On Sunday, Oct. 24, Lewis and his wife, Debra, were visiting friends in Minneapolis, four hours away from their home in Ashland, Wis. Lewis, a family doctor for a Chippewa Indian reservation, had spoken to Bernadette earlier in the week. Berni, the oldest of his four children, the one who "was not great at making decisions," had called to tell him about her career plans.

To his surprise, Berni also mentioned she'd made plans to visit at Thanksgiving. And that she'd already done her Christmas shopping. She didn't mention that she'd been wondering just what it would be like to hop a freight train herself.

Gone all day Sunday, the Lewises had no idea that 33 phone messages and a note pinned to their front door awaited their return. At 8:30 p.m., they arrived home and spoke with the police.

"No way!" Lewis told the officer. "It's absurd. No way she did that."

Later, he thought about the strength it requires to pull yourself onto a moving train. "Why couldn't she have been stronger?" he asked himself. He imagines that somehow, standing alongside the tracks in southwest Baltimore must have given her that Titanic "King of the World" feeling.

Her parents had worried when Berni moved from the Midwest to the "big city" of Baltimore three years ago. "It was braver than anything I could have done," says her mother. But why her grown-up daughter would try to hop a train ...

"The only thing that makes sense to me is that her whole life was a process of overcoming her fears. She was becoming braver and braver, and this was another step," Lewis says.

"In the end, it was a stupid thing to do, I know."

The "Dog Park" -- formally known as Conway Park -- is a triangular chunk of park-benched grassland in Ridgely's Delight. It's frequented by dogs whose owners meet and form friendships, sometimes even become roommates. It's where Sarah Preston, 23, a second-year medical student at the University of Maryland, first met Bern and Lola early this year.

In September, Sarah and Bern decided to move in together. Bern took the basement apartment, where the radiator served as a table, book shelf and TV stand. Besides her laptop computer, the woman owned little else.

The other roommates, including Maegan Chaney, another med-school student, soon discovered that Bern was a true "bleeding heart" who, if she couldn't rid the entire world of all injustice and trash, would start small. "She had us start recycling," Maegan says. "She was always very responsible."

And busy. In the last three months of her life, Bern worked at Focus on Teens, a HIV-prevention program in Baltimore. Since 1998, Bern also had volunteered at the women's health clinic at Chase Brexton Clinic in Baltimore. And since 1997, she'd worked at the University of Maryland's Institute of Human Virology, where her lab research focused on the possible environmental causes of breast cancer and HIV infection.

"She could organize scientific research, but she couldn't figure out how to clean her room," Jeff Lewis said at his daughter's memorial service.

But she could do things in the kitchen, Maegan says. Bern made the best apple pie. "That's good to have in a roommate," she says. For her Halloween party, Bern mulled her own spiced cider and made bean soup she served in a hollowed pumpkin. "I always called her 'Martha Stewart,' " Maegan says.

Maegan didn't go to the railroad tracks with Bern that Saturday night. A little after 1 a.m., she called it a night. A few hours later, she was awakened by noises downstairs. She thought the party was still on. A police officer was there. Maybe they had been making too much noise. Sarah told her what happened, but Maegan didn't want to hear the details. It had been such a perfect evening.

"That's my comfort," Maegan says, "that Bern had just had a very good day."

Su-hun Seo apologizes for not being able to find his shoes. He hasn't shaved or slept much, maybe two hours. He is back in Baltimore in early November not to spend his usual weekend with his girlfriend, but to put her to rest and, somehow, put himself to rest, too.

At Pickles Pub, easy walking from Bern's apartment, Su-hun tries to order lunch. He confuses the chicken with a burger plate. He doesn't know what he wants.

He and Bern had met at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation in Rockville, where they both worked as lab technicians in the field of AIDS research. Their first date was three years ago. "Three years, six months, two days," Su-hun says. "We met in the lunch room. She was very, very quiet."

Three years and six months later, both had committed to attending medical school. No marriage plans, but the subject had come up. "We both had our personal goals to pursue -- thinking we had all the time in the world," Su-hun says.

Sarah Preston, Bern's roommate, walks into Pickles and gives Su-hun a hug. Like him, she is tired and not hungry. They speak to each other in the emotional shorthand of grieving friends -- her hand rubs the back of his neck, he nudges his face into her shoulder. He's carrying Bern's favorite sweater -- the one she's pictured wearing in her obituary in The Sun.

"I still find myself looking for her," he says.

He doesn't touch whatever he's ordered. "My greatest fear is that losing her will make me bitter," Su-hun says. "So many unrealized plans."

He and Bern had made plans for New Year's Eve. To escape the Y2K hysteria, they were going to Colorado with his parents. She hadn't met his parents yet. There they could hike until they dropped. Bern had introduced Su-hun to hiking; actually, she'd introduced him to much more: to the look of the Earth. If Su-hun was the "voice of reason" in this couple, Bern was the wide-eyed Earth child.

Su-hun felt the Earth's look again after she died. During the service up north, when a portion of Bern's ashes were scattered in Lake Superior, "I felt I was looking at the world through her eyes," he says.

He hadn't gone to the train tracks with Bern. Usually a night owl, he was tired and he turned in around 10:30 p.m. Bern tucked him in, got him a blanket, kissed him lightly, told him he "looked so cute." She also told him tonight was the night. She would hop a train.

"You're joking, right?" he said, before falling into a short sleep.

The Rev. Larry Schulmeister is in his kitchen preparing his Sunday sermon, his three Dobermans inspecting his visitor. Schulmeister's Dobie Beckett was madly in love with Bern's Lola. They chased each other in the Dog Park as their owners discussed how to keep Lola from always running into the street.

For his sermon at St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park, Schulmeister planned to discuss his young friend's death by recounting the passage from Matthew about the 10 maidens who took their lamps to meet the bridegroom. Five were wise and took lamp oil, while five were foolish and did not. They paid dearly.

"We are all foolish bridesmaids in a sense. And Bern was a wonderful example," Schulmeister says. "We've all done dumb things, but most of us are lucky enough to survive our foolish mistakes."

Bern's death reminds him of how John F. Kennedy Jr. died, and of the public response, a mixture of compassion and judgment. Why did he fly that small plane in those weather conditions? Why did she try to hop a moving train? She'd doomed herself. Had she been the victim of random violence, there would have been a clear victim -- and a perpetrator to blame, Schulmeister says.

"Here, the victim and perpetrator are the same person, and that's what makes it complex," he says. "But our response has to be compassion and acceptance."

I have often said that when I'm old, after I've had my career and family, I will move to the mountains. I imagine myself becoming immortal, taking the power from the sky and the rocks, the wind and rain.

-- Bernadette Lewis, writing at Mount Holyoke College, 1995

There had been another plan that night. After everyone had carved funky pumpkins, drunk spiced cider and eaten s'mores, they would watch a movie. Bern owned a copy of "Living Out Loud," a favorite featuring Holly Hunter as a bashful wife who breaks out of her suffocating life by living out her fantasies. But it got too late to start a movie.

The crowd thinned after midnight. Jennifer Lee, whose boyfriend, Dan Burnett, is a close friend of Su-hun, just wanted to go home and study. But Bern had a master plan, her train idea that had been hatched a week earlier.

"It was such a stupid, dangerous idea. But she had her mind set on it," Jenny says.

Just a week earlier, Bern had been stopped in her Toyota at train tracks near her home, watching a freight train crawl by. She wondered what it would be like to hop a freight, even talked about fashioning a special backpack so she could take Lola with her when she did it. Just like two hobos, she imagined.

In dreams, trains are thought to symbolize one's position in life and the desire to change through sheer energy and strength of will. As Bern told her friends that week, she had dreamed about trains, had written about them in her overworked journal.

Well after midnight, Bern and four friends left the apartment. "My thought," says Dan Burnett, who was among them, "was at least let's go down to the tracks, hang out, and wait for trains to come by."

They stopped in the 1300 block of Ridgely Street. Jenny and two others stayed in the car and watched as Bern and Dan went to the trains.

Within minutes, a CSX freight approached. "I don't think you can do it," Dan told Bern. The train was moving too fast. Besides, he said, you can't just stand there and grab on. "If nothing else, you need to run alongside of one for a while," he remembers telling her.

That train passed. But soon a second train, a freight from Cumberland, arrived. Traveling at 8-10 mph on the middle track, it seemed much slower than the first train. But the ladder -- the "grab iron" -- looked so high up, Jenny remembers.

There were 60 cars on the train. The last of them were chugging past when, after a few false starts, Bern, smiling, excited, reached toward the grab iron at the back of a boxcar. Her hand slipped. So fast, so surreal. "I felt like I was in 'The X-Files,'" Jenny recalls. In that split-second, Bern seemed surprised by the train's power, which jerked her beneath it, Jenny says. "As far as I know, she didn't even scream."

"I freaked," says Dan, who ran back to the car. "This isn't happening! This can't be happening!" he screamed.

"All parts of my brain were saying there's nothing to be done," he recalls. Still, he went back to the tracks, his medical school training pushing him to do so. But he had seen Bern go under the train, and knew she was dead. She had been decapitated.

Baltimore police determined the death of Bernadette Lewis was an accident. Around 3 a.m., Florida-based CSX Transportation was notified of the incident.

"Trains are not things to play with," says CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan. The effect of a freight train hitting a car is like a car hitting a soda can, he says. Imagine, then, the impact of a train hitting a person.

"Whatever the motivation is for [people] hopping trains, we want them to stop."

She started life as a shy, self-doubting girl, and she spent her life overcoming her fears. In the end she touched many lives.

-- Jeff Lewis, eulogizing his daughter

When the services were over, Su-hun Seo returned to Philadelphia to continue his work in AIDS research and to await word on his medical school applications. Before leaving Baltimore, though, Su-hun and Sarah Pres-ton scattered portions of Bern's remains at a few of her favorite places: the Tidal Basin in Washington, the harbor across from the Daily Grind in Fells Point, the Dog Park in Ridgely's Delight.

"She would want to be everywhere she loved," says Sarah.

Before Su-hun left town, Dan Burnett took him and Bern's parents to the train tracks, to see where it happened and to leave flowers.

"Much to my amazement, a freight train came by," says Jeff Lewis. "I just about lost it."

"An incredibly cruel joke," says Su-hun, who hurried away from the tracks and shut his eyes. It was a long westbound train, and he opened his eyes again long enough to see the last of its cars pass. They did seem to be traveling slowly. And in that split- second, he no longer felt anger or nagging confusion over Bern's final decision. He saw, as if looking through her eyes, what she had reached for.

"The train now seemed so peaceful and safe," Su-hun says. "You could see where one could be compelled to climb up." It could have been different, he thinks.

"It could have been she made it."

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