Student killed by train may have been distracted



November 18, 2007

By BILL BIRD Staff writer

The blink-of-an-eye passing of his elder son has left Jim Twist bereft -- not lost, exactly, but in some way now and forever incomplete.

"I was his chauffeur," Twist said, smiling at the bittersweet memory of the hours spent driving and driving and driving with his son, North Central College junior Dan Twist, who was struck and killed last week by a train. "I feel like half of my job as a dad has just been taken out from under me. I really thought Dan would be my running (around) buddy for the next 30 years." 

Dan Twist must have seemed something of an oddball to some of his peers. The 22-year-old did not hold a driver's license, needed three years to earn a degree from a local junior college and dealt on a daily basis with a slight speech impediment.

But where some undoubtedly saw disability, the Twist family and members of their inner circle saw only beauty and achievement. Dan toiled tirelessly to rise to the rank of Eagle Scout while in high school, graduated from Triton Community College in River Grove while working there as an educational aide and immersed himself in his studies at North Central College, where he quickly became a fixture at WONC-FM, the school's student-run radio station.

He accomplished all that and more while living with Asperger syndrome, a milder form of autism sometimes marked by difficulty with social interaction and limited outside interests.

"There are kids with his disability who would not have been juniors in college, who would not have gone as far in scouting as he did," Jim Twist said of his son. "When he was a kid, if you looked at him through a kid's eyes, you probably didn't 'get' him very much. But people, through an adult's eyes, 'got' him."

The perfect storm

Jim Twist, his wife Judy, and their younger son Mike, are still reeling from the cruel confluence of circumstances that brought their son and brother Tuesday morning to the place where the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks intersect with Loomis Street north of downtown Naperville.

Loomis Street had been Dan's lifeline to North Central College. He would ride a commuter train from the family's home in near-west suburban Brookfield to Naperville's Fourth Avenue depot.

Jim Twist said his son knew that by following it south, Loomis Street would bring him to the North Central campus.

Perhaps there had been some sort of Asperger-related distraction, his father theorized. Perhaps Dan was humming or singing along through his headphones with KISS or Queen, the rock 'n' roll bands whose music he kept in heavy rotation on his portable compact disc player. Or perhaps it had been something else entirely.

Dan, in any case, apparently never saw the lowered railroad crossing gates and the pulsating red lights when he stepped into the path of a pair of locomotives speeding toward Aurora.

Jim Twist discounts speculation his son might have taken his own life.

"No, you don't commit suicide after signing up for sessions with the radio station" to guarantee programming throughout the college's coming Thanksgiving break, nor do you plan an extra session in a speech class, as his son had done, he said.

"It was a combination of factors" that sealed his son's fate, Jim Twist said. "It was the perfect storm."

Trying to be strong

The Twists are finding considerable solace in family, friends and their faith.

"Everyone's trying to be as strong as possible," Jim Twist said. "We're basically being reminded of how many friends we have, and how many people had good feelings about Dan and how many friends Dan had."

"He had sort of a groundswell of popularity that we weren't aware of" until very recently, Jim Twist said of his son. Dan, unbeknownst to his parents, had created his own page on the popular Web site, and had tallied 237 "connections" with others in cyberspace.

"He was just a good guy," his dad said.