The Locust Street crossing in Centralia sees more than 50 trains pass through it daily
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CENTRALIA – Victor J. Bonagofski, a nearly lifelong resident of Centralia, lost his life when he fell off his bicycle on the railroad tracks and was hit by a freight train on Wednesday night.
Police say Bonagofski was at the Locust Street crossing, headed east and the crossing arms had come down. Witnesses told police he was was unable to move off the tracks prior to being struck.
The 72-year-old who made his living recycling and selling car parts had been behind the Hub Tavern on South Tower Avenue not long before it happened.
He was near the dumpsters, “doing what he normally does,” Centralia resident Jennifer Holt said.
She’d noticed him while she and her boyfriend were out in the bar’s beer garden.
Holt said she was taken aback when she learned later what had happened, and who was killed.
“I don’t know him, I know who he is,” she said this morning. “I’d see him a lot, doing the cardboard thing.”
The Lewis County coroner today released his name and said he concluded the death was accidental.
Born in North Dakota, Bonagofski was 10th of 14 children. His family moved to Centralia in 1950, according to one of his more than 60 nieces and nephews.
He lived on Reynolds Avenue, on a parcel of roughly two acres that over the years has drawn the attention of city and county officials, concerned about his thick collection of recyclables and vehicles.
He owned the land there, according to nephew Kevin Bonagofski.
Back in January of 2008, more than a dozen government employees, including law enforcement with their guns drawn, visited his property, accusing Bonagofski of operating an illegal wrecking yard. When they knocked on the door of his soon-to-be condemned mobile home tucked amongst scores of cars and trucks, Bonagofski had been burning sticks and blackberry vines in his wood stove and listening to a local radio talk show.
Twice before, the then-64-year-old said, they’d filed nuisance abatements on his property.
The man who earned a degree in business administration from Seattle University years earlier said it was time consuming, getting the property cleaned up – which is what he suspected officials really wanted – especially with interruptions of lawsuits and civil actions.
Lewis County code enforcement had been talking with him again in recent months.
Nephew Kevin Bonagofski said his uncle never married and had no children.
“I heard one time, he had a mail order bride, but it didn’t work out,” said Dave Dix who works at the commercial properties adjacent to Bonagofski’s compound.
Dix said Bonagofski would stop over once or twice a week, often buying cars when there was an auction.
“It was definitely a shock, he’s gonna be missed, that’s for sure,” Dix said.
Dix said he was told Bonagofski just laid there after he fell down; he wondered if maybe he had a heart attack or hit his head and was knocked out.
BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas said it was an empty grain train headed from Kalama to Montana that was involved. Crew on the northbound train saw someone and tried to stop, Melonas said.
“They went into an emergency brake application, but impact was made, unfortunately,” Melonas said.
It didn’t entirely surprise Dix that the neighbor would have tried to pedal across even after the crossing arms came down. He wasn’t exactly known for abiding by the rules.
“If it wasn’t in the Constitution, then it wasn’t the law,” Dix said. “He was hard on that, he pushed that issue.”
However, he was a good person, in good shape for a man of his age and was busy from daylight to dark, according to Dix. His driver’s license had been suspended, many times, so he usually rode a bicycle pulling a small trailer, he said.
“He was a worker, man he was a worker,” Dix said. “We used to watch him go up the road and come back with that trailer full.”
Lavonne Riggen, Bonagofski’s younger sister, came to the property this afternoon to help look for important documents.
“A lot people looked at Vic and thought he was just a bum,” Riggen said. “But they didn’t know how smart he was; he graduated from Seattle University with degrees in political science and business.”
He was just stubborn about his rights, she said.
The Centralia woman said her brother also was gifted when it came to auto mechanics.
“We used to say he was born with crank case oil in his blood,” she said.