By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CENTRALIA – Why was a grown man who lived 13 miles out of town, and no longer drove, standing near the outside rail of the tracks in downtown Centralia in the middle of the night?
Nobody knows for sure, because he was struck and killed by a freight train last week.
But his ex-wife has a pretty good idea.
Michael T. Patton
Michael T. Patton, 58, lived alone in a house he built on Centralia-Alpha Road in Chehalis. Alzheimer’s ran in his family.
Some months ago, he’d developed a routine of walking to Centralia every day to visit his ex-wife, Gene Inmon.
Inmon was the one who took him to the Veteran’s Hospital in Seattle last May, where the doctor who took a brain scan told her he didn’t know how Patton was even functioning.
“I was around him every day so I didn’t notice it like other people did,” Inmon said. “But it was like every day, there was another piece of him gone.
“It’s a terrible disease.”
Thankfully his truck finally broke down, so he had to quit driving, Inmon said on a recent day as she recounted the downward spiral she witnessed in her former husband.
Sometimes he was giggly, as though he were a kid again, she said.
Adult Protective Services had begun the process to get him a guardian to mange his affairs, she said. He didn’t even know how old he was, she said, he needed to go into a some kind of home.
“I was terrified something was going to happen to him, because he was so confused,” she said.
Inmon, a sometimes substitute teacher who also works in an office in Tenino, said the disease came on fast and progressed rapidly, leaving few traces of the former “Pe Ell boy.”
Patton was single father who raised his three children in Pe Ell, she said. When he was younger, he was a a medic in the Army and served in Germany, she said.
For 35 years, Patton worked for Weyerhaeuser harvesting pine cone seeds during the season and then as a contractor in the off-season.
Inmon and Patton lived in Doty during their five-year marriage, after his daughter and two sons were mostly grown.
He was a fix-it guy, that little old ladies loved and a guitar player who composed songs he shared with friends, at home and at church, she said.
He attended Centralia Bible Chapel every Sunday before he got sick, she said.
Early last week, Patton arrived in Centralia with an orange reflective vest. Someone had stopped him on the road and given it to him, Inmon said. She doesn’t know who. He just told her it was a “gift.”
Inmon said it was his habit to stop and sort of hunker down into his shoulders when traffic would go by.
The day before he was killed, Patton wore his vest. He and Inmon did some shopping, had lunch, and she got him some movies before driving him home.
That night, she got a phone call from a process server looking for Patton’s address so he could deliver the guardianship papers.
It was 9 o’clock, she said.
“I told him, he’s asleep, he’s sick, don’t get him all riled up,” she said. “And that’s exactly what happened. I’m sure he was heading here.”
Patton died hours later.
Centralia police were called about 12:30 a.m. on January 9 to the area near Chestnut Street and South Tower Avenue.
Police were told by the engineer and conductor of the Union Pacific train they were near the Gold Street viaduct when they saw him and began sounding the horn.
According to the police report, the man was facing west with his hands in his pockets and just stood there.
He turned his head toward the train just before impact, police wrote.
Patton’s body landed only about 10 feet from the tracks. He was wearing the reflective vest over his leather coat, according to detective Rick Hughes. With him was a newly purchased pack of cigarettes and an unscratched lottery ticket, Hughes wrote.
The locomotive was stopped in the middle of the intersection at Maple Street. The engineer said he believed the train was slowed down to less than 40 mph.
Patton probably didn’t even know what the train’s headlight was, Inmon said.
His death was determined to have been accidental.
“It’s all very sad, and it should not have happened,” Inmon said. “There’s a side of me that’s angry and sad, and a part of me that thinks he’s released from that.”
Last year in Washington, there were 14 people struck and killed by trains in Washington. The year before, there were 26.
The stretch of tracks through Centralia is the busiest route in the state, with an average of 60 trains each day.
Patton is survived by his children, Jennifer Coucoules, Allen Patton and Edward Patton, their families and also by two brothers and two sisters, according to Inmon.
A Celebration of Life will be held on Saturday Jan. 26, 2013 at 1 p.m. at Centralia Bible Chapel, 209 N. Pearl St., Centralia, Wash. A potluck will follow.
Instead of flowers, his family requests donations be made to the Lewis County Veteran’s Relief Fund, 360 NW North St., Chehalis, Wash., 98532 or to the University of Washington Alzheimer’s Research Fund.