Report: Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum employee fell through skylight 37 feet to his death

State agency details accident, issues $12,000 fine

Staff Photo / A 2-8-2 Mikado steam locomotive is seen May 10, 2013, at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum's Soule Shops, where train engines are repaired and maintained. Longtime museum employee George Walker died Jan. 4, 2023, when he fell through one of the building's skylights while doing maintenance on the roof of the restoration shop.

The Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum $12,000 in three "serious" citations for safety violations that led to the death of longtime museum employee George Walker in January.

Walker was working to fix some roof leaks at the shop on North Chamberlain Avenue on Jan. 4, when two witnesses saw him fall through a skylight 37 feet to the concrete floor below, according to the state agency.

The three citations issued to the museum were all connected with the lack of fall protection.

— Citation 1 states two museum employees didn't wear fall protection while ascending in an aerial lift to access the roof, resulting in a $1,200 fine.

— Citation 2 states the employees were walking and working with an unprotected side or edge that was 6 feet or more above a lower level and were not protected by use of a guardrail system, safety net or personal fall arrest systems. The fine for that violation is $5,400.

— Citation 3 states the employees were also not protected while working from falling through the skylights by personal fall arrest systems, covers or guardrails erected around them. The fine for the third citation is $5,400.


Museum spokeswoman Penelope Soule Gault said none of the citations were contested.

"In our conference with TOSHA, immediately following the accident, we were made aware of these three issues," Gault said Wednesday in an email. "TVRM took immediate steps to abate the three areas TOSHA identified at that conference."

The building the incident occurred in was the Soule Shops, which is approximately 13,500 square feet and contains skylights on the roof approximately 9 feet long and 3 feet wide. The shop is used to maintain rail cars, according to the agency.

Accident details

Unnamed employees who witnessed the incident described what they saw as one of the employees drove an aerial lift to the side of the shop and elevated it to the roof. Walker caulked the edge of the roof from the center point to the east side, taking about 30 minutes. The witness stated Walker mentioned since he was already on the roof, he would check for more holes. Walker found an additional hole south of where he was originally caulking and started walking back to the aerial lift basket on the north side of the building to retrieve more caulk.

The witness told officials he was reaching down to get the caulk out of the tool bag and when he looked up, he saw Walker in the skylight up to his chest trying to grab something to hold onto. He then fell through the skylight approximately 37 feet to the concrete below.

(READ MORE: Safety agency opens investigation of Norfolk Southern rail accidents)

The other witness told the agency he saw the employee in the aerial lift basket and Walker on the roof as he entered the shop. As he was coming out of the break room, he saw the Walker hanging from the skylight and then fall. Museum employees told the agency there were no anchor points on the roof to use for fall protection. Officials noted multiple fall protection harnesses and lanyards on-site.

"Neither the employee nor the victim had fall protection on at any point during this job," the agency's report said.

To avoid the addition of interest and delinquent fees, the museum must make payment of penalties due in 30 days from the date the citation and notification document was received, according to the agency.

  photo  Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum / Longtime Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum employee George Walker was killed Jan. 4, 2023, in an accident at the museum's restoration shop in Chattanooga. Walker was the museum's general manager of passenger operations.

George Walker

Walker, 58 at the time of his death, grew up with a strong interest in railroading, Gault said in January in an email immediately after the fatal accident. Louisville & Nashville Railroad's Sequatchie Valley branch line ran through the Walker family's Marion County property in Whitwell, Tennessee, she said.

In 1970, Walker's father took him on his first excursion behind Locomotive No. 4501 when he was 6 years old, Gault said.

In 1981, Walker began volunteering at the museum, and after he graduated from high school in 1982, he was hired by a company that was a part of Norfolk Southern's steam excursion program based out of Birmingham, Alabama. In 1989, he moved back to Chattanooga after accepting the shop foreman position at the museum.

"George has been an integral part of the TVRM team as general manager of passenger operations and a most passionate supporter of rail preservation," Gault said. "We will not be the same without him."

Following the accident, former Chattanooga Times Free Press photographer John Coniglio, a longtime train lover and member of the museum's extended family, wrote of the magnitude of the loss for the museum and the role Walker played there.

"George was a good man, humble and dependable, and a role model for anyone aspiring to work in railroading," Coniglio wrote on Facebook after the accident. "This is a sudden and tragic loss for his family and friends, and for railroad preservation. We will carry on his legacy."

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.