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A 34-year-old local man was killed Wednesday when he was struck by a Norfolk Southern freight train in downtown Athens, Tennessee, according to local and railway authorities.

Athens police responded to the scene with emergency medical officials around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to interim police chief Fred Schultz. In an email Thursday, Schultz said the incident happened in the area of the intersection of West Madison Avenue and Cook Drive, just west of Starr Regional Medical Center.

Schultz said the victim was identified as Joseph Carl Lowe of Athens. Schultz said Norfolk Southern was the lead investigative agency on the incident and deferred details of the incident to Norfolk Southern officials.

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said Thursday in an email that the incident didn't happen at a railroad crossing but involved a person walking on the tracks, "which is highly dangerous."

"The train was coming out of Chattanooga headed north for Virginia and there was no further incident to crew or train," Spielmaker said. The northbound train was pulling 183 cars, plus locomotives, he said.

More than 2,100 people are killed or injured each year in the U.S. crossing or trespassing on train tracks, according to Operation Lifesaver, a railway safety education organization that is one of the partners in Rail Safety Week, which was held from Sept. 20-26.

Tennessee ranked No. 8 in the U.S. in 2020, with 36 casualties among people walking on tracks, including 32 deaths and 60 people injured, Federal Railroad Administration records show. Georgia ranked higher at No. 5 with 41 casualties, 25 deaths and 16 injured.

In incidents at railroad crossings, Tennessee ranked No. 11 in the U.S. in 2020 with 51 collisions, four deaths and 16 people injured, records show. Georgia ranked higher at No. 3 with 103 collisions, nine deaths and 33 injured, and Alabama ranked No. 7 with 84 collisions, three deaths and 27 injured.

"No matter the circumstances, any loss of life is a tragedy — our thoughts are with their family during this difficult time," Spielmaker said. "We would be remiss if we didn't say that train tracks can be dangerous and they are not a place to walk along. This is a very unfortunate reminder of that."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

RAILROAD TRESPASS CASUALTIES - TOP 15 STATES

According to Federal Railroad Administration statistics, 1,085 pedestrian rail trespass casualties (fatalities plus injuries) occurred in 2020. Approximately 71% of all 2020 trespass casualties occurred in the 15 states listed below.

RANK, STATE, TOTAL CASUALTIES, DEATHS, INJURIES

1. California 246 131 115

2. Texas 92 32 60

3. Illinois 48 21 27

4. Florida 41 25 15

5. Georgia 41 25 16

6. Washington 41 19 22

7. New York 40 18 22

8. Tennessee 37 22 15

9. New Jersey 33 14 19

10. Oregon 33 10 23

11. Ohio 26 15 11

12. North Carolina 24 12 12

13. Pennsylvania 23 12 11

14. Arizona 22 12 10

15. Maryland 19 13 6

Source: Operation Lifesaver/The data is based on preliminary 2020 Federal Railroad Administration statistics last updated Sept. 15.

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