Two boys, a boxcar and beer
Pair trapped 8 days without food, water

Wednesday, December 2, 1998

BY JANICE MORSE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[riley]
John Wayne Riley, 15, prayed every night that he could come home.
(Michael Snyder photo)

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HAMILTON -- Trapped in the total darkness of a railroad boxcar, two Hamilton boys spent a week without heat, light, food or water, worrying they would die before they were found.

But they were surrounded by hundreds of bottles of beer -- so they drank it to survive, said John Wayne Riley, 15.

"I was praying every night for God to keep me alive so I could come home and see my family," said John, who lives on North Fifth Street with his parents and three sisters.

He and Billy Grimes, 12, had jumped onto a slow-moving train in Hamilton on Nov. 23 to escape about a half-dozen thugs who were chasing them, John said. Then they switched trains, hoping to head back home. But somehow the boxcar doors slammed shut while they slept, imprisoning the boys until they were discovered Tuesday morning in the railroad yard of the Miller Brewing Co. in St. Clair Township.

When the boys were rescued, they didn't know where they were or what day it was. They were cold, hungry and dehydrated. "I don't think I would've made it another day," John said. "Those people saved our lives."

Around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, two Miller employees ventured into the railroad yard to count boxcars. They heard faint noises that seemed to be coming from one of the cars, said Richard A. Green, Miller's traffic manager.

"As we got closer to the car, we could hear somebody hollering, 'Hey, help!' and banging on the side of the car," Mr. Green said. "It was very weird."

After he and co-worker Candace Hunter found the car, they banged on it and shouted that they were going to get some help. Company security guards summoned Butler County sheriff's deputies, then moved the car so it could be opened.

When the door was opened and John tumbled onto the ground, "we were pretty much shocked," Mr. Green said. They were even more shocked to see how small and young Billy was. Both boys appeared dirty, weak and frightened.

Miller employees gave them water and food, and St. Clair Township ambulances took the boys to Mercy Hospital North.

John's father, Lonnie Riley, had told Hamilton police his son was missing Nov. 23; police told him Tuesday that John had been found and was headed for the hospital. Mr. Riley arrived there before the ambulance did and was stunned to see his son being wheeled out of it wearing an oxygen mask. "He looked like he was dead," Mr. Riley said. "He was destroyed."

But within a few hours, both boys were released from the hospital. For young teens, 48 to 72 hours is about the limit before the body becomes dehydrated, according to Dr. Barry Staley, a West Chester family practitioner.

Drinking the beer might have saved their lives, he said. It's not the optimal fluid; in fact, it probably just passed right through them. "If someone truly had no fluid intake for eight days, I'm not sure they'd be able to do nearly as well as these young folks seem to be doing," the doctor said.

The cool weather may also have helped them because they didn't sweat and lose more water, he said.

Billy Grimes and his mother, Dora Burns, who also filed a missing-person report with Hamilton police, could not be reached for comment. John, who stands about 5-foot-6 and used to weigh 130 pounds, now weighs about 110.

He's not allowed to eat a whole lot right now, but within a few days his family hopes to celebrate with a feast. Thanksgiving "just wasn't the same," said John's mother, Tina Riley. "Those boys didn't even know Thanksgiving had already passed. When he got out, he thought it was Thanksgiving."

John said he never gave up hope.

John said he was banging on the boxcar walls Tuesday morning when he heard the sound of someone -- apparently Ms. Hunter -- talking on a CB radio. "We'd still be in there -- and we'd probably be dead -- if I hadn't been yelling and banging," John said.

During their confinement, the boys sat atop tall stacks of beer cases, some bottles empty, some full. The space was so cramped, they couldn't sit up straight, John said.

John said he and Billy "did the only things we could do: We talked and we slept. We used the bathroom: the beer bottles. . . .

"Mostly, we talked about how could we get out of here -- and if we get out of here, how were were going to change," John said.

Both boys have been in trouble; they were attending a school for suspended students.

Mr. Riley said he was told the boys may face trespassing charges. But during their confinement, they vowed to reform, John said. And as a train clattered along the railroad tracks that run along the street where he lives, John added, "And I don't want to be around any trains."

Amy Higgins contributed to this report.



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Two boys, a boxcar and beer
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