Peter “PJ” Francois knew what he wanted to do with his life — be a doctor — and he was working hard to achieve his goals.
The 19-year-old studied full time at Boise State University while working nights and weekends as a certified nursing assistant at a Boise assisted living facility. His experiences working with the elderly at Brookdale Senior Living had him reconsidering his plan to be a pediatrician.
“He just loved the residents there,” his mother told the Statesman on Tuesday. “He just really has a deep compassion for their suffering and various ailments. He began thinking about geriatrics and hospice.”
Shari Francois said PJ, the middle of her three children, had filled in for a friend at work on Monday morning. He told his parents he’d be home by about 3 p.m.
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He never arrived.
It was a little after 8 p.m. when an official with the Ada County Coroner’s Office notified his parents that PJ had been killed in a collision with a freight train, Shari Francois said.
“I had no idea there was an accident a mile away,” she said. “I had no idea for five hours.”
The collision occurred at a railroad crossing on Black Cat Road, near the intersection with North Greenhurst Road, on the west side of Kuna. There are no crossing arms or flashing lights at this location; there are a stop sign and a railroad crossing sign.
The Ada County coroner said the cause of PJ’s death was blunt force trauma, and the manner was listed as accident. The Ada County Sheriff’s Office is investigating.
A sheriff’s office spokeswoman said no new information about the crash was available Tuesday evening. A Francois family member said they were told the investigation could take up to 40 days.
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The train that collided with PJ’s Subaru Impreza was a westbound Union Pacific freight train that originated in Kansas City, Mo., and was headed to the Portland area, according to a Union Pacific spokesman. It was transporting household goods, such as furniture.
The train was traveling at 58 miles per hour when the collision occurred, Union Pacific spokesman Francisco Castillo said. He said the track speed limit in the area is 70 mph, with restrictions in some places.
Castillo said the train followed the required protocol of sounding its horn ahead of a crossing.
“That’s two long, one short, and one long,” Castillo said of the warning horn. “That’s repeated as necessary until the locomotive clears the crossing.”
Castillo could not speak about the crash investigation, but he did note that there is a camera on the front of the locomotive that will offer some clues about what happened just before the collision. If the train engineer did see the car on the tracks and activated the emergency brakes, it’s not likely he could have prevented the collision.
“It takes about a mile for a train to come to a complete stop when it’s fully loaded,” Castillo said. “It’s heavy. You can’t just hit the brakes like a car, and the car stops.”
The conductor and engineer who were aboard the train at the time of the collision were taken home by shuttle and put in touch with peer counselors. Another crew was brought in to take the train to its destination.
“We offer our sympathies to the family of the young man,” Castillo said.
Vehicle-train crashes in the United States have been significantly reduced over the past 30 years, with total annual collisions dropping by 75 percent from 9,461 in 1981 to 2,287 in 2014, according to national statistics compiled by Operation Lifesaver. Fatalities have fallen by about 65 percent, to 269 deaths in 2014, preliminary data show.
In Idaho, there were 58 vehicle-train crashes from 2010 to 2014. The annual number of vehicle-train crashes in the state during that five-year period ranged from a low of eight in 2012 to a high of 16 last year.
8 Number of people who died in vehicle-train collisions in Idaho from 2010-2014
The majority of train-vehicle crashes occur in rural areas, Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Steve Grant said. Rural railroad crossings don’t usually have crossing arms or flashing lights. Nearly 70 percent of the train-vehicle crashes in 2014 occurred in rural areas.
A LIFE CUT SHORT
PJ was born in Santa Rosa, Calif., and he spent much of his youth in Northern California. In 2011, when he was 15, his family moved to the Treasure Valley.
“My folks are elderly. They live here, and we wanted to be near them,” Shari Francois said.
PJ studied nearly three years at Kuna High School and graduated as valedictorian of the class of 2014.
“My main extracurricular activity is studying languages, particularly Spanish and French,” he said in a special section on his graduating class published in the Kuna Melba News. “Languages are really important to me because I think it’s highly valuable to be able to think in more than one way and gain a wider perspective of the world.”
He ran a tutoring business in high school, and his mother said he earned his CNA license before graduating. One of his close childhood friends suffers from muscular dystrophy, so PJ chose to do volunteer work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Amy Kinghorn, a former manager at Brookdale Senior Living and the person who hired PJ, decribed him as sweet, caring and reliable. He was involved in helping residents with everything from getting dressed to taking medications.
“He was an amazing employee,” Kinghorn said. “He was just a very gentle soul. He didn’t have a negative bone in his body.”
PJ was close to his siblings — sister Ashley, 25, and brother Spencer, 12 — and his girlfriend, Jo Williams.
“There’s no measure to what she brought into his life. He loved her,” Shari Francois said of Williams.
PJ’s mother said she couldn’t recall even a single instance when he misbehaved in a way that upset her or caused her worry.
This kid was just a sweetheart, just a prince. I would call him ‘Prince Peter.’
Shari Francois, PJ’s mother
“He was not one ounce of problem ever — never did he drink, smoke or do drugs,” she said. “Never did he backtalk me. I can’t remember one time that he raised his voice. ... The world has truly lost an extraordinary person.”
A service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 2, at Grace Bible Church, 1415 Lone Star Road, Nampa. It is open to all those who want to celebrate PJ’s life. Zeyer Funeral Home in Nampa is handling arrangements.