Coroner: Teens killed by train were playing game

POPLAR BLUFF, MO (KAIT) – Two girls struck and killed by an Amtrak train Tuesday were playing a deadly game, according to the Butler County coroner.

The accident happened early Tuesday at a railroad crossing about one mile east of Poplar Bluff. The Missouri State Highway Patrol says the victims were 17-year-old Haley Whitmer and 15-year-old Victoria Swanson, both of Poplar Bluff. Kaitlyn Fowler, 15, was seriously injured during the collision, and her condition is unknown at this time.

Local legend says a train derailed years ago at this particular crossing. Teenagers have made a game of parking on the tracks and turning off their cars to see if they can spot a "ghost train," and that is what Coroner Jim Akers says five girls in Whitmer's 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee did early Tuesday morning.

"The parents who were all supervising last night were all aware that the girls had this plan," Akers said. "Some of them even said that their daughters were infatuated or obsessed with this 'ghost train' and had been out here many times, never before had there been an actual train.

"This was a game that was supposed to be fun, entertaining and became life-threateningly serious."

Akers says an Amtrak train approached the crossing around 12:30 a.m. Whitmer, the driver, tried to restart her vehicle, but it failed. Two of her passengers escaped the car safely, but Akers says Whitmer ran back to try and free two friends from their seatbelts. That's when the train smashed into the car, killing Whitmer and Swanson and injuring Fowler.

"Haley (Whitmer) was always helping somebody, always," Ashlee Chadwick said. "She always put herself last. I knew that, if a day like this came, I knew Haley would risk her life. I knew it."

Chadwick came with several friends to survey the scene Tuesday afternoon and search for some missing personal items. She calls Whitmer one of her best friends and says it's unlikely the girls were playing the "ghost train" game before the accident. She says her friends simply came to the area to take a joy ride, and suggests Whitmer's older vehicle just broke down on the tracks.

"I guess no matter how bad it hurts, she's not coming back," Chadwick said, "and I got to face that."

Mark Dobbs, the Butler County sheriff, says he and his deputies will do what they can to keep people away from the tracks.

"We're going to do our part to make sure that people aren't congregating, teenagers aren't congregating out there," Dobbs said, "and that the legend doesn't grow."

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