Coroner: Teens killed by train in Butler County were playing game

Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Union Pacific Railroad Special Agent Steve Ray looks for debris along a rail line just north of Poplar Bluff, Mo., Tuesday, June 5, 2012, after two teenagers were killed and another was injured when their vehicle was struck by an Amtrak train just after midnight. Fifteen-year-old Victoria Swanson and 17-year-old Haley Whitmer, both of Poplar Bluff, were killed. A third girl was airlifted to a Cape Girardeau hospital. The driver of the Jeep was not injured. (AP Photo/Daily American Republic, Paul Davis)

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Two girls struck and killed by an Amtrak train were playing a deadly game.

The accident happened early Tuesday at a railroad crossing near Poplar Bluff. The Missouri State Highway Patrol said the victims were 15-year-old Victoria Swanson and 17-year-old Haley Whitmer, both of Poplar Bluff. A third girl is in serious condition.

Butler County Coroner Jim Akers said five girls were playing a game called "ghost train," in which a car is parked on the tracks purportedly awaiting a train that wrecked many years ago. If a real train approaches, they drive off.

But Akers said that as the Amtrak train neared the 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the vehicle wouldn't start. Three teens got out but two panicked and couldn't unbuckle their seat belts. One returned and unbuckled the other girls and was still inside the Jeep when the train slammed into it.

"It's crazy," said Akers, who had never heard of the game before the accident. "It's horrible. I really don't have words yet. I wish I had some smart, poetic way of saying something to stop kids from doing things like this."

The crash happened at about 12:30 a.m. on County Road 544, one mile east of Poplar Bluff.

The teens, who suffered blunt force trauma, were pronounced dead at the scene, the Daily American Republic reported.

Kaitlyn P. Fowler, 15, was flown to Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau for treatment. At about 10:30 a.m., it was reported Fowler had been brought into the facility's trauma unit. She reportedly was in critical condition and in surgery.

According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the westbound Jeep was struck by a southbound Amtrak train at a little-used rural railroad crossing with passive warning crossbucks only.

"It was a double fatality with no driver" behind the wheel at the time of the crash, said trooper Clark Parrott, Troop E's public information officer.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the train had 188 passengers and about a dozen crew members. None was injured. The train was delayed about two hours.

At the time of the crash, Akers said, some of the girls were in the vehicle, while others were not.

"The three that were injured were in the vehicle," Akers said. "Swanson had to be extricated, as did Kaitlyn Fowler."

Both were trapped in the vehicle due to the impact, said Akers, who believes Swanson died upon impact.

Whitmer, Akers said, was thrown from the Jeep, which was struck on the passenger side.

Two of the girls, including Fowler's younger sister, got out of the Jeep, Akers said.

"They all got out except for Swanson and Fowler, and Whitmer came back," Akers said. Whitmer "was helping them get their seat belts undone when they got hit. She got into the vehicle on her knees to help."

Apparently, "in talking with all of the families, some of the girls were obsessed" with the game, Akers said.

Akers said a child death review panel will be held later this week.

The panel will look for "any factors, as a community, that we can learn from this to prevent any further deaths," Akers said.

The Amtrak conductors, according to Akers, immediately got out and started administering first aid after the crash.

"It was overwhelming the amount of help that was there," including from the families, Akers said. "Everyone worked very well and efficiently out there ... in a hard situation."

The same apparent game, or a version of it, has been deadly before. In 2010, about a dozen men were standing on a railroad trestle in North Carolina playing "Ghost Train" when a real train rounded a bend. The others got off the track, but 29-year-old Christopher Kaiser was struck and killed.

According to a 2007 posting on the website, the tale is that a train derailed many years ago (it wasn't clear when or where), killing nearly everyone on board. The site claims a man was beheaded and a pregnant woman's body found, but not the body of her unborn child.

"So once you get to the railroad track you pull onto the tracks and shut off your car," the posting reads. "Your windows start to fog up very quickly and you can hear a train whistle in the background, it gets louder ... then stops. You will often also see a light when you look down the train tracks. While sitting in the car you will hear something tap on your window and if your [sic] brave enough to look outside a woman will be standing there asking you where her baby is. And for the extremely brave, if you decide to get out of your car you will see a decapitated man in the ditch searching for his head, many people have saw this (including myself)."

Akers said the teens had not been doing drugs or alcohol. They had told friends they were heading out Monday night to the tracks, he said.

"It's hard to convince kids not to do the foolish things kids do," the coroner said. "They think they're indestructible."

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