OR: MAX Train Deaths: Family, Friends and Neighbors Struggle to Make Sense of 'Fluke Accident'

Aug. 17--John Paul Kelly loved trains -- and cars and motorcycles, too.

"Anything that moved really caught his eye," said family friend Eddie Held, 23.

It's heartbreaking irony: Kelly, 48, was struck and killed by a MAX Blue Line train Saturday morning, after he was sitting in his mother's lap and accidentally hit her wheelchair's controller, according to TriMet. Kelly -- who was developmentally disabled, family members said -- and his mother, Bertha Kelly, were propelled into the gap between two train cars as the MAX rolled away from the Gresham City Hall station, making a three-foot plunge from the platform to the tracks.

Bertha Kelly died at the scene and John Paul died about two hours later at an area hospital, officials said.

The fluke stunned the Kellys' friends and family, who took exception to early speculation that the accident was a suicide attempt.

"It was not a suicide. She was a great woman," Held said of Bertha Kelly, who he considered an adopted grandmother. "It was a freak accident."

Held and James Kelly, 25, who is Bertha's grandson and John Paul's nephew, stood in Northeast Portland's Argay Park on Sunday afternoon, trying to make sense of what had happened. They wore John Paul's clothes -- a tank top depicting the cartoon character Popeye and a Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets jersey -- as a tribute. James Kelly said he read the initial news coverage of the accident, asking himself, "Is it really true?"

James Kelly and Held said they met at Albertina Kerr, a center for those with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges. Over time, Kelly's family became Held's family.

"Blood could not make us any closer," Held said.

The two have been through a lot together, they said, but never anything like this.

"I don't even know what now," James Kelly said. They don't yet have plans for a funeral. They're still trying to figure everything out.

In addition to cars and trains, John Paul loved cartoons and the Oregon Ducks. He was full of life, Held and Kelly said, and "always put a smile on everybody's face." He lived in an adult-care facility, and when he would visit Bertha, who was 66, he often sat on her lap as they took the MAX to the farmer's market at the Gresham Kmart. That's where they were going on Saturday morning, James Kelly said.

Gresham MAX fatal: Friends, family react to tragic accident Eddie Held (right) talks about trying to comfort James Kelly, his brother, who is standing next to him, after finding out that Kelly's uncle and grandmother died in a "freak" MAX train accident.

James Kelly repeated on Sunday that John Paul had Down syndrome. But one of Bertha's neighbors, Terra Schaller, said he was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, which cut off oxygen to his brain and left him with developmental disabilities.

TriMet said the train operator may not have found out about the incident until he reached the next station -- the Gresham Central Transit Center.

Bertha Kelly was a retired nurse who eventually starting using a wheelchair because of severe back pain. She had three cats and a tarantula, and enjoyed solving jigsaw puzzles. Her neighbors gathered outside her apartment Sunday afternoon to leave memorials -- a stuffed cat, teddy bears, flowers and candles among them -- and remember a life "full of laughter."

"Her laugh was just contagious," said Schaller, who lived two doors down. "That's what we'll really miss. It just filled the courtyard."

Gresham police continue to investigate the accident, which was the second fatal collision involving a MAX train in less than two weeks. A man died Aug. 7 after reportedly "staggering" and "stumbling" in front of an eastbound train at East Burnside Street and 122nd Avenue.

-- Luke Hammill

Anna Marum and Joseph Rose of the Oregonian staff contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 - The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

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