Coroner: Mo. teens killed by train were playing game

By JIM SALTER

Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Two Missouri girls struck and killed by an Amtrak train were playing a deadly game, a coroner said Tuesday.

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Union Pacific Railroad Special Agent Steve Ray looks for debris along a rail line just north of Poplar Bluff on Tuesday, 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.

Butler County Coroner Jim Akers said the teens were playing a game called “Ghost Train,” in which a car is parked on the tracks, purportedly awaiting the arrival of a “ghost train” involved in a fatal derailment many years ago. Occupants let the windows fog up in the scary setting. If a 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 accident happened at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday at a railroad crossing near Poplar Bluff in southeast Missouri. The Missouri State Highway Patrol identified the girls who died as Victoria Swanson, 15, and Haley Whitmer, 17, both of Poplar Bluff.

Kaitlyn Fowler, 15, of Poplar Bluff, was hospitalized in critical condition after undergoing surgery.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said he had never heard of a game like “Ghost Train,” either. He said the Amtrak train had 188 passengers and about a dozen crew members. None of them were injured. The train was delayed about two hours.

Patrol spokesman Clark Parrott did not return messages seeking comment. A brief patrol report on the accident did not mention that the girls were playing a game.

But Akers said the surviving girls described the game, and parents of the victims said they were aware the girls had played “Ghost Train” previously.

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 strangeusa.com, 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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