UPDATED at 4:45 p.m. with condition update.
POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. • Five teens inside a Jeep were playing a game, based on ghost legends, when they parked on railroad tracks just after midnight Tuesday morning.
"They were playing a stupid game called 'Ghost Train,' and the object is to get scared, kind of like telling stories on Halloween," said Butler County Coroner Jim Akers. "The game was to park on the tracks, let the windows fog up inside and let your mind play tricks on you."
But the game took a deadly turn when a real Amtrak train approached and the driver couldn't restart her vehicle, Akers said. Three of the teens got out safely, but two girls in a panic couldn't unbuckle their seatbelts in time. The Jeep's owner returned to the car and helped unbuckle her friends, just as the train smashed into the vehicle, Akers said.
Victoria E. Swanson, 15, and Haley M. Whitmer, 17, both of Poplar Bluff, died at the scene at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday. The girls were on summer break from Poplar Bluff High School.
Kaitlyn P. Fowler, 15, of Poplar Bluff, was seriously injured, the patrol said. She was taken by medical helicopter to St. Francis Hospital in Cape Girardeau, then transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where she was in critical condition this afternoon.
Two other teens who were standing along the tracks escaped injury, Akers said.
None of the 188 passengers or 12 crew members on board the "Texas Eagle" Amtrak train was injured, said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman. The engineer was a 53-year-old man from Little Rock, Ark. The train, using Union Pacific tracks, had picked up passengers in St. Louis and was heading to San Antonio. The only signal at the tracks was an x-shaped warning sign.
The Missouri Highway Patrol investigated the crash along with the Butler County sheriff's office. The patrol, in a brief summary of events, couldn't determine which of the teen girls was the driver of the 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The Jeep was stopped on the railroad tracks at County Road 554, one mile east of Poplar Bluff. County Road 554 is also known as Wilcox Road in that area. Wilcox Road has been the subject of ghostly tales on the internet.
One such posting in 2007 on strangeusa.com gives directions to the Wilcox Road railroad tracks, then says: "Most people do this at midnight, but people have reported seeing spirits as early as 10 pm." The site talks about pulling onto the tracks and shutting off your car. You can hear a train whistle in the background, it says, and it gets louder, then stops. "You will often also see a light when you look down the train tracks," the legend says.
The ghostly tale claims a train derailed there in the 1900s, killing nearly everyone on board. A man was decapitated but authorities never found his head, the site claims, and a pregnant woman's body was recovered but the baby was missing from her womb.
Akers, the coroner, said he spoke with the parents of the girls in the Jeep and the survivors. What he heard was a chilling account of the teenage game.
"This is a horrible tragedy," he said. "This is some type of game going on in teenage culture in our county for years."
Akers said he's been coroner since 2008 and had never heard of the game until Tuesday. He said the girls' parents were aware of it but didn't condone it. He said the girls had done it before without a problem. The girls had mentioned to others that they were heading out Monday night to the tracks on Wilcox Road, Akers added.
"They were obsessed with it," he said. "The girls were apparently infatuated with sitting on the tracks and scaring yourself. The girls had gone out many times to do it."
There are some conflicting accounts about whether they knew the train was coming. One girl told investigators she never heard the horn. And Akers said that, although there is a slight curve before the crash site, that with the Jeep's motor turned off "you'll hear the rumble for a good distance."
None of the teens was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the coroner said.
Akers said Whitmer's family owned the vehicle, but it's unclear if she was the driver. The vehicle may have had some electrical problems that prevented her from restarting it, Akers said.
When they saw the train approaching, Whitmer and two other teens unbuckled their seatbelts and got out. But Fowler and Swanson apparently couldn't get theirs undone, Akers said. So Whitmer ran back to the Jeep and, on her knees, helped undo the seatbelts. She got Fowler free, Akers said, but the train hit.
Akers commented on "Whitmer's bravery for staying with her friends. She was out and free but she came back" to try to help them, he said.
The Butler County sheriff's office referred all questions to the patrol. Trooper Clark Parrott, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol's Troop E, would only say: "The investigation is still continuing."
This is the second incident in one week in Missouri involving people struck by Amtrak trains.
On Wednesday, a 14-year-old boy was fatally struck by an Amtrak train in Kirkwood as he walked along the tracks on his way to meet friends in downtown Kirkwood. Cameron Vennard, of Oakland, was listening to music on his headphones when he was hit.