A holiday picnic came to a screeching halt Sunday afternoon when a train at a nearby crossing smashed into a car carrying a mother and her daughter, and propelled the sedan into a ditch.
The Metro-North train was heading toward Waterbury when it careened into a 2002 Toyota Camry driven by Vicki Buker-Besse, 40, shortly after 3 p.m. as it entered the Herbert Street crossing, which is about 150 feet from two nearby homes. One of the homes belongs to Buker-Besse's father and was the location of the family picnic Buker-Besse had attended.
Buker-Besse and her daughter, 7, who was in the back seat, were taken to Bridgeport Hospital, where they were in stable condition Sunday afternoon.
The car, which was completely destroyed, might have indicated otherwise. Family members said the pair survived because the train hit the car's passenger side.
Metro-North's Waterbury line service was temporarily suspended, and the train was sent to the Milford station, where the nearly 100 passengers, none of whom reported any injuries, boarded another train to Waterbury, according to Sam Zambuto, an MTA spokesperson.
Milford police and fire crews, along with Metropolitan Transportation Authority police officers, responded to the Herbert Street scene, but only the MTA will continue the investigation, according to Milford officer Emily Sopchak. Investigators plan to use information from the train's black box.
Buker-Besse's family members allege that the train did not blow a warning whistle for any nearby cars as it approached the crossing. Relatives also questioned whether the train was speeding.
Buker-Besse's father, Carroll Buker, said his daughter grew up in that home and knows to stop for trains at the crossing. She had also left the picnic with her car windows rolled down, he said.
Zambuto said that officers have not yet determined what caused the northbound train, which had left Bridgeport at 2:34 p.m., to crash.
Buker-Besse had left the picnic to go pick up her fiance, planning to return later, family members said. She had only been in the car a few minutes when the accident occurred.
Neighbors James and Diane White were at home, and reported hearing a loud "boom." They're used to the noise trains and their horns make throughout the day, but when they heard the thud and a horn that wouldn't let up, they knew something was wrong.
They saw that Buker-Besse's car had landed upside down practically in their yard, and that a little girl was crawling out of the car. Diane White dialed 911, and her husband ran to the sedan.
"I saw an arm and got down on my knees. There was no response. But then I saw her (Buker-Besse's) hand move," James White said.
Margaret Syc, Buker-Besse's mother, said her granddaughter ran up Syc's ex-husband's driveway and back to the picnic after the loud noise.
"She said, 'I tried to wake mom up. I can't wake mom up.' When I got a good look at her, she was a mess and covered in blood," Syc said.
When Syc got to the car, she saw hair hanging over her daughter's face and panicked; she said she lost a son a few years ago and couldn't bear to lose another child. Family members pried the door open to get Buker-Besse out, and when emergency crews arrived, they immediately took her and her daughter to the hospital.
"The car had eight airbags. I think that's what saved her life. I just thank God," Syc said Sunday.
This wasn't the first time the family has experienced a train tragedy involving that crossing. Buker's current wife was hit by a locomotive in 1994, he said.
He added that there are large signs that tell conductors to blow the train's horn or whistle for any cars that may be at a crossing. But sometimes, according to Buker, the signs are removed by vandals. There are also stop signs at the crossing for motorists, but no blinking lights or gates.
When asked why he hasn't moved, Buker said the house and surrounding land has been in his family for generations. So, every so often, he trims trees and brush around the crossing to maintain sight lines and makes sure to give every visitor to his home one simple reminder:
"My last words to everyone on the phone before they come to my house is, 'Stop for the train,'" Buker said.
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