Death by Train -- A Teenage Trend?

05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Two beautiful teenagers died recently and I was there. I'll never forget what happened.

I needed to get from New York to Washington, D.C. for a business meeting but a massive snow storm was set to slam into the Northeast. So, a trip aboard Amtrak's high-speed Acela train seemed the best bet.

Two colleagues and I spent the travel time strategizing and then we felt a bump and heard a cracking sound. There were murmurs of, "We must have hit a patch of ice," and "I think it was a big tree branch on the track." The train stopped dead.

There we sat for two hours in Norwood, Pennsylvania watching the snow fall outside our windows. The conductor announced we might have to transfer trains but didn't explain why. Then, we saw police outside. Slowly word spread throughout the train, which I verified with a quick internet search. Our train had struck and killed two girls on the track.

It wasn't ice or branches but human bodies coming in contact with an object traveling at 110 miles an hour that had made that terrible sound. I'm sure every parent on board was thinking, as I was, of their own children.

What were girls doing on the track on a school day and in the snow? An early internet story quoted a ticket agent who said he'd seen the girls arguing when he went out for a smoke and one had been on a cell phone just before our train roared by.

My mind quickly went to the possibility of suicide. I'd read about a trend of suicide-by-train among teenagers in California. In the affluent town of Palo Alto, California last year four students from Gunn High School took their lives by deliberately stepping in front of speeding trains. Earlier this month a high school girl in Pleasanton, California did the same.

Yet experts in the fields of child psychology say its best not to talk too much about teen train suicide lest other unstable youths become copy cats. And too much media coverage, they maintain, can romanticize suicide to disturbed teens.

Within two days of 16-year-old Gina Gentile and 15-year-old Vanessa Dorwart being struck by our train Pennsylvania authorities announced the cause of their deaths was suicide. The girls had been despondent over the death of Gina's 17-year-old boyfriend, Bill Bradley. He'd been struck by a car and killed while riding his bicycle to Gina's house five weeks earlier. They just couldn't shake their grief.

There had been a third girl on the tracks that awful day but she made the last minute decision not to join in her friend's final, fatal embrace as they stepped in front of the train. She provided investigators with crucial information and police believe the suicide pact may have involved as many as seven students.

Vanessa's parents say their daughter had everything to live for and was planning both her upcoming sweet 16 birthday party and a nursing career. A quick check of her Facebook page would have given them a clue about her real state of mind.

Two days before she committed suicide Vanessa wrote: "I just wanna be happy again. Not the fake smile my real one."

Gina's last posts, on her boyfriend's memorial site and on her own Facebook page, also speak volumes.

"Bill, life without you here is not going to be the same. Save a spot for me, Pumpkinn."(sic) On the one month anniversary of Bill's death Gina wrote, "I wish there was something or some way to heal the hurt & pain. But there isn't. My heart is broken & a piece will be missing until the day we meet again. I miss you terribly Bill."

Police needed to inspect our train after the accident and we finally transferred to another for the trip into Washington. As a journalist I couldn't fail to go to the front of the train to see what inspectors would see. It was a horrifying site with the fiberglass nose of the train pock-marked by the indention of the girl's bodies. I could envision the moment just before and the actual point of impact and I shuddered.

I hear the experts' advice but I think we should talk about the kind of acts our most anguished children are driven to. Believe me, our kids are talking about it amongst themselves without regard to what language might influence others. We need to communicate with them on their level - on every level we possibly can.

If we don't have open dialogue about how to handle death, disappointment and emotional pain, if we don't communicate about the horrors suicide leaves behind for survivors then we deny our kids knowledge and perspective that might save them. We also fail to instill in them the empathy for others that might - just might - make them think twice before taking such a final, deadly step.

As Vanessa's mother cried out at a recent track-side vigil, "I just want my daughter back!"