ORLANDO — Middle school students still reeling from the deaths of two classmates earlier this school year were coping Monday with the loss of three more peers who were killed by a train that struck them as they crossed a railroad bridge.
The three teenage girls, along with a teenage boy, ignored “no trespassing” signs and walked out onto the railroad trestle Saturday evening in downtown Melbourne, a city of about 77,000, nearly 50 miles southeast of Orlando. Onlookers yelled for the teens to run or jump into the slow-moving water of Crane Creek 20 feet below as the train approached, but only the boy made it off the 200-foot span.
In 911 calls released Monday, a train dispatcher told the emergency dispatcher that at least one of the girls was in the creek. Another man attending a party at a bed-and-breakfast on the creek told a 911 dispatcher that a girl was laying on the track in the middle of the bridge after being hit.
Cmdr. Ron Bell of the Melbourne Police Department said Monday that police believe the teens were taking a shortcut. Bruce Dumas, who was fishing along the creek banks below the trestle when the accident happened, said the teens had been joking around and taking pictures before the train barreled toward them.
The teenage girls were classmates at Southwest Middle School in Palm Bay, which has had its share of tragedies this school year. Another student at the school of more than 1,300 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders recently committed suicide, and another pupil was electrocuted last year while putting up an antenna for a ham radio. The antenna fell on power lines, also killing two family members.
“It is a terrible accident that is going to have a profound impact on our community,” Christine Davis, a spokeswoman for Brevard County Schools, said of the train accident. Grief counselors were available for students at the school Monday.
Police officials Monday identified two of the girls, 15-year-old Jennifer Reichert and 14-year-old Ciara Lemn, both from Palm Bay. The medical examiner’s office was still working to positively identify the third girl.
Interviews with three eyewitnesses and the boy who was with the girls are consistent with an accident, and foul play has been ruled out, Bell said.
The track is owned by the Florida East Coast Railway, which operates about 350 miles of track along the state’s east coast.
In a statement, the company said it was deeply saddened. It said the tragedy was a reminder that people need “to respect the dangers presented by railroad tracks and operations.”