On the morning of May 28 last year, Destiny Phaneuf and her best friend, Rachel Brown, knew one thing: They didn't want to go to school.
The two eighth-graders were tired. They had stayed up pretty much all night. And sometime between surfing MySpace and sneaking outside to the trampoline, they hatched a plan. Instead of getting on the bus, they would walk down to the train tracks near Rachel's house in Lebanon, Maine, and spend the day outside, out of sight.
"It's not like it's such a bad thing that we go on [the tracks], because everyone does," says Rachel, who was 14 then. "Like people every day go on those tracks - go jumping off of it, they go in the water, sit on there and go fishing. It's not, like, out of the blue."
The girls lay down between the train tracks - Destiny, who was 13 at the time, on her right side and Rachel on her left side. They put their heads on Rachel's bag and fell asleep.
"We were like wicked tired and we didn't really mean to," Destiny says. "But we were just laying down and talking and everything."
"We didn't really mean to fall asleep," Rachel chimes in.
A Terrible Accident
Destiny says that they're heavy sleepers anyway, but they were extra tired.
So when the train came, the conductor and the engineer laid on the brakes and horn and the girls didn't move, according to Lt. Gary Fecteau with the York County Sheriff's Office.
"I think there was an exchange between the two of them: 'Oh, I think it's towels.' 'Oh, my God, no - there's people on there,'" Fecteau says. "They could see what was going to happen and they did everything they possibly could, but you just can't stop a train like you can a car."
The train hit the girls.
"When I woke up under the train and everything, it [was] pretty much all shock. 'Cause you're sleeping and then you wake up under the train and you're like, 'What?'" Destiny says. "Like my body was so heavy against the splintery wood and all the rocks like digging into my back. It was really bad."
"I was crawling on my hands and knees out from underneath the train and I tried to run," Rachel says. "I forgot that anybody was there. I forgot why I was there. It all came back to me so fast. I crawled back under and was like, 'Destiny, Destiny get up.'"
"I couldn't understand. The only thing I could understand was really pain," Destiny says. "Like, that's what hurt the most was the wind."
"When your bones that have never touched the air touch the air, it's like putting a Popsicle on your bottom teeth," Rachel says.
"Except for times a million," Destiny says.
Suicide Pact Ruled Out
News of the accident spread fast, and there were more questions than answers: There were two teenage girls struck by a freight train? How did they survive? And why didn't they feel the vibrations or hear the whistle? Was it a suicide pact or a teenage game of chicken?
But when the police finished their investigation, they backed the girls' story: They fell asleep on the tracks.
Both girls suffered amputations. Rachel lost most of her right foot, and Destiny lost her left leg below the knee. They were airlifted to Maine Medical Center in Portland for immediate surgery.
"When I woke up, Rachel came in her wheelchair and, like, the first thing she said was 'I love you.' And I was, like, 'I love you, too,'" Destiny says. "My mom told me I lost a leg, and it didn't really go through my mind. It didn't really go through my mind for, like, a month. I was like, 'Whatever, I lost a leg, it will grow back.' And then I was like, 'Wait a minute. No, it won't.'"
Destiny's mother, Trish Del Santo, says Destiny liked her time in the hospital because she felt safe.
"It was definitely an adjustment when we came home," Del Santo says. Destiny "kind of hibernated in her room because she [didn't want to] fall. When she wanted something, she would yell for me - like in the hospital. Destiny is not good with change. She has a hard time with it - it takes her a while."
'Everything Has Changed'
On a Saturday in late September, months after the accident, Destiny searched for her favorite T-shirt with Marilyn Manson on it. She hopped from the kitchen to the family room on her good right foot and asked her mom where it was. Destiny has come a long way from hibernating in her room, but getting around - just moving from place to place - is a struggle.
"Everything has changed. Even to the smallest thing," Del Santo says. "Any normal kid would get up and if they're thirsty, they go get a drink. She can hop to the refrigerator, she can open the refrigerator, she can hold the refrigerator door and put the juice on the counter [and] pour the drink, but she can't carry it. ... Even simple things like getting a drink - it's done differently now. I don't think there is anybody in the entire world [who] has not made a bad choice. Do I wish they made a better choice? Of course. But I still love 'em. You just have to go on and deal with [it], get through it. It's just the way it is."
Destiny won't get her prosthetic leg for months. In the meantime, she refuses to use a wheelchair. She either hops or uses crutches.
"I don't want to feel crippled. ... I want so badly not to be crippled," Destiny says. "It's like I lost a part of myself. ... It feels like a part of me is dead, because it's gone."
We all make mistakes, but imagine making a bad decision that you will remember every day for the rest of your life. That is Destiny's and Rachel's new world. But if there is a sense of remorse or regret, it's not evident. The girls have adapted in a way that only kids can. They emanate teen bravado and resolve. And if it was their friendship that got them into trouble, their friendship may also be the thing that gets them through.
SourceAll Things Considered, February 19, 2000