The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 23, 2013

‘RIPE FOR DISASTER’

How joy ride ended in tragedy

Kathy Mellott
kmellott@tribdem.com

REVLOC — Paul “P J” Taylor jumped on the two-seat all-terrain vehicle of a friend and headed out on a path near Revloc on June 1.

He was doing something thousands of riders in the region will do this summer, something law enforcement and conservation officials wish they could stop.

Taylor, 23, of Mineral Point, a well-liked Central Cambria High School graduate, was celebrating the 40th birthday of a friend in Cambria Township when an acquaintance, Brianna Rose Fox, wanted to go for a ride on a Polaris Razor ATV brought to the party by another friend.

This seemingly innocuous act ended Taylor’s life and resulted in a harrowing night for Fox.

Some have termed what happened that night as the perfect – or maybe not-so–perfect – storm of events.

“The situation was ripe for disaster,” Cambria County Chief Deputy Coroner Jeffrey Lees said.

Taylor and Fox were riding the ATV on an old railroad line.

Unused for decades, with the steel rails removed, the trail sits idle as the property of the Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority as the group looks for money to transform it into a recreation trail for nonmotorized use.

Rose was wearing the safety harness on the passenger side of the two-seater, but no helmet.

Taylor, a coal miner for Amfire Mining LLC, was not wearing a helmet nor was he wearing the driver’s side safety harness.

An experienced ATV rider, Taylor had sold his quad more than a year ago.

On the night that he died, his blood-alcohol level was 0.8 percent, according to information provided by Lees, which is right at the limit to operate a vehicle in Pennsylvania.



Over the edge



The Pennsylvania State Police report says Taylor was driving along the railway, once used by the now defunct Cambria and Indiana Railroad, when things went bad.

The undeveloped trail, which includes a worn and rotted wooden bridge, was probably known to the driver, but not very well, according to his father, Paul Taylor, of Swigle Mountain.

“He probably rode it before, but it probably had been a while,” the father said.

There were plenty of indications that the closed trail had been used by more then PJ Taylor and his passenger. Someone had even placed a tin strip about 3 feet in diameter across a rotted section of the bridge, Lees said.

It is believed that the tin buckled when the ATV crossed it, causing the vehicle to tip on its side then over and into the stream bed, Lees said.

“The ATV fell 14 feet into Williams Creek, where the water was 2 to 3 feet high,” Lees said.

Without a safety harness, Taylor had little chance of surviving the accident.

“Upon impact, Taylor was thrown under the vehicle,” Lees said.

Taylor sustained massive head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene by Lees, while Fox was taken to Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown with what was described as moderate injuries.



Riding the rails illegally



The rail trail and bridge are part of what was once owned by Bethlehem Mines. The trail starts in Revloc and goes through to the Colver area, where it meets the already developed Ghost Town Trail before crossing into Black Lick Township, said Dee Columbus, executive director of the recreation authority.

The land was transferred from Bethlehem to what was then NORCAM in the 1990s, then eventually turned over to the authority, she said.

“It is posted; it is not a developed trail,” Columbus said of the Revloc loop. “It is not open to the public.”

The authority puts up signs warning people to stay off the property, but they are constantly ripped down, she said. Gates to prevent entry onto the property are in a number of locations, but ATV riders can get around them, she said.

Shale at some areas, which may give the impression of a degree of maintenance, is ballast from the railroad, put down before Bethlehem went out of business, Columbus said.

An agreement with the Pennsylvania Game Commission provides some policing.

“We have engineering drawings for it (trail development,)” Columbus said. “But if developed, it will be as a nonmotorized trail.”



A common problem



The area has been a problem for a long time, said Cambria Township Supervisor Buzzy Shook.

At the Revloc end, steps had been taken to put some trees across the area to discourage access, he said.

Cambria  Township police Chief Mark Westrick termed the undeveloped area owned by the authority as vast with trees, gates and other barriers – all of which the ATV riders just drive around.

“We do our best in the public areas to patrol, but in these rural areas, there is just so much woods,” Westrick said. “It’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of acres of woods.”

Estimates by rail experts are that there are hundreds of similar old abandoned rail lines and bridges in the state and thousands across the country.

And little if any one has oversight.



A tragic end



Spokespersons with the state Public Utility Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources all said their agencies have no involvement or responsibility for inspection and maintenance for the bridge and trail where Taylor lost his life.

“There’s a whole lot of old railroad and foot bridges around that aren’t to be used,” said state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton. “They are on old trails and nobody’s maintaining them.”

The lack of “No Trespassing,” signs is not an invitation to use the areas, said Haluska, who was instrumental in developing the Rock Run ATV trail near Patton.

“If riders do not have permission of the property owner to ride there, they are trespassing,” Haluska said.

The story of PJ Taylor is one that is being retold far too many times, said Robb Piper, secretary of the Cambria County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, who termed illegal ATV riding as a huge problem in Cambria County.

“It’s a tragedy when anybody enjoying the outdoors is injured or there is a fatal (accident),” Piper said. “But you’ve got to take responsibility for anything you do, whether it’s carrying a fishing rod, a firearm or riding an ATV.”

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