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Deaths of 2 teens on train tracks called suicide

The two teenage girls struck and killed by a high-speed Amtrak train in Norwood last week stepped onto the tracks deliberately, meeting their deaths together in a suicide pact, authorities said yesterday.

Two memorial crosses placed at the Norwood station are in memory of  Vanessa Dorwart, 15, (left) and Gina Gentile, 16. (Tom Gralish / Staff)
Two memorial crosses placed at the Norwood station are in memory of Vanessa Dorwart, 15, (left) and Gina Gentile, 16. (Tom Gralish / Staff)Read more

The two teenage girls struck and killed by a high-speed Amtrak train in Norwood last week stepped onto the tracks deliberately, meeting their deaths together in a suicide pact, authorities said yesterday.

Gina Gentile, 16, and Vanessa Dorwart, 15, were killed instantly when an Acela Express racing from Boston to Washington sped through Norwood at 10:28 a.m. Thursday.

An examination of their e-mail and text messages showed dark thoughts and fatalistic moods, Police Chief Mark DelVecchio said. In the days before they stepped into the path of the train, he said, the girls secretly spoke of their desire to end their lives.

Police said they did not know what had led the girls to suicide.

"We have no clue," DelVecchio said. "We have no reason why they did it."

A classmate at Interboro Senior High School who was with the girls in the moments before they died told police that she, too, had intended to take her life. The girl said she and Gentile had left school at 9:30 a.m. and walked to the Norwood station. Dorwart sent them a text message, asking her friends to wait for her to join them, the girl told police, who declined to release her name.

"Hurry up, the train is coming," the girl replied via text message. "We missed the first one."

As the train approached and its whistle blew, the girl said, Gentile stepped onto the tracks. Dorwart followed.

The girl said she had screamed at her friends to get off the tracks.

Ignoring her pleas, Gentile and Dorwart embraced and were struck by the train.

Autopsies yesterday concluded that the deaths were suicides, according to the Delaware County Medical Examiner's Office.

News that the deaths were deliberate stung relatives, who initially scoffed at the suggestion of a suicide pact.

Friends and relatives said the girls had been upset about the death of Gentile's boyfriend, William Bradley V, 17, in a bicycle accident last month, but the girls' parents and others said they had seen no indication that they were suicidal.

Dorwart's father, Paul, said Friday that he could not believe that his daughter had intended to kill herself.

Reached by telephone last night, he declined to comment further. He said that the family had met with the medical examiner yesterday afternoon, and that the office would send out a release detailing "what they believe happened."

In the earlier interview, Paul Dorwart said that on the night before her death, his daughter had been happily planning her 16th birthday party.

"Memories, that's all I have is memories," he said. "I'll never see her smile again. I'll never see her beautiful blue eyes. My heart just got ripped out, and I don't know why."

Gentile's family declined to comment last night. Earlier in the day, before meeting with the medical examiner, relatives discounted reports of a possible suicide pact.

"We really don't know what the truth is right now," said Gentile's aunt, Stephanie McVeigh. "I am getting so upset."

DelVecchio and the girls' families said they encouraged anyone who was feeling despondent or suicidal to get help. They also urged people to take seriously any suicide threats made by others.

The chief said Gentile and Dorwart had told other friends of their desire to end their lives, but the friends later told police that they had assumed the girls were making "empty threats."

An investigation by Amtrak was continuing.

Vernae Graham, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said she did not know how fast the train had been going when it hit the girls. Acelas are permitted to go 110 m.p.h. in the Norwood area, which is just north of I-95 in southeastern Delaware County.

Once the emergency brake is applied, she said, it takes an Acela the length of three football fields to stop.

For the train's conductor and engineer, she said, that can be a harrowing stretch.

"All they can do is, unfortunately, stand back and wait for the train to come to a complete stop."

After the impact, she said, the conductor and engineer were so shaken that they asked to be temporarily relieved of their duties.

"The crew did request relief," Graham said. "We immediately took them out of service." The railroad also made counselors available.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board did not return phone calls and e-mail messages yesterday.

The Federal Railroad Administration reports that trains kill about 500 pedestrians a year in the United States.

The numbers are particularly striking in the Northeast Corridor, the four-track thoroughfare that in Delaware County is shared by SEPTA and Amtrak.

In Delaware County alone, eight people on foot were killed in the last four years - two last year, three in 2008, one in 2007, and two in 2006 - the federal agency said.

The agency, for the first time, is trying to compile data on the number of suicides.

"It has been asserted that . . . it could be 20 percent. Some have even suggested 50 percent," said Warren Flatau, an agency spokesman.

Experts who study suicides say people who are distraught - particularly young people - may seek out one another.

"Depressed youth often gravitate to other depressed youth," said Matthew Wintersteen, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University and a member of the Pennsylvania Suicide Prevention Monitoring Committee.

"I think of it as the Romeo and Juliet phenomenon," said Jonathan Singer, an assistant professor of social work in Temple University's College of Health Professions and Social Work. "You don't have the courage to do it by yourself . . . but when it's you or your best friend, it's strength in numbers."

At Interboro High, two blocks up Amosland Road from the train station, the halls were silent Friday because it was a snow day. Sports trophies gleamed from their cases in the darkened foyer.

Inside the office, the lights were on. Several women and a police officer sat at the desks. The office was open so that students who needed help with their grief could drop by to talk.

Principal Paul Gibson said he had asked counselors from the four schools that feed the high school to come in. They had known the high schoolers when they were younger. He figured they could relate to the students better than would outside counselors.

The Interboro School District encompasses Norwood, Glenolden, Prospect Park, and Tinicum. It is the sort of area where the corner stores are still family-owned and where the men volunteer for the fire company, while the women bake lasagna for the ladies' auxiliary.

Gibson called the community "a throwback." A recent freshman-sophomore dance, the kind that baby boomers might remember, drew 500 students.

"This is not going to be the kind of thing that will go by quickly," he said of the deaths. "This is a close-knit group of people here."

Friday night, in a vigil near where the girls were killed, about 300 people huddled around a leafless tree with Valentine's Day teddy bears tied to its trunk.

Every few minutes, a train whooshed by, a taunting reminder of the girls' last seconds.

The bundled-up crowd huddled around candles, the faces lit by the flames. Sobs could be heard.

Danielle Nolan, 16, talked of her friend Dorwart as if she were yet alive.

"She is a beautiful girl," Nolan said. "No one expected this, not from Vanessa."

"I'm really going to miss her," added Katarina McCauley, 16, another friend of Dorwart's. "I can't believe this happened."

A funeral Mass for Dorwart will be said at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Gabriel's Church, 233 Mohawk Ave., Norwood. Friends may call from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at the McCausland-Garrity Funeral Home, 202 S. Chester Pike, Glenolden, and after 9 a.m. Saturday at the church. Burial will be at SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple Township.

Funeral arrangements for Gentile were not complete.