No Metro-North alert to cops of incident that caused woman's death on Westport bridge
Published 4:14 pm, Tuesday, December 31, 2013
As family and friends mourned the death of a 46-year-old Maine woman whose body was found floating in the Saugatuck River after being struck last week by a Metro-North train, railroad officials said Tuesday they did not report the incident to Westport police or their own police force
Annette L. White died of blunt impact injuries when struck from behind by a westbound train about 6:40 p.m. last Thursday, just east of the Saugatuck station, as she crossed the bridge in an apparent effort to reach the depot. The impact caused White to tumble into the icy Saugatuck River beneath the span, where her body was found near the mouth of the river about 9:15 a.m. the next morning by a duck hunter in a kayak.
Westport police detectives as of Tuesday were still trying to piece together White's whereabouts from 4 p.m. Thursday, when she was last seen alive in the home at 35 Owenoke Park where she had been staying since July, and the time of the fatal accident.
She had been walking west, apparently following the tracks after leaving the Owenoke neighborhood, and then headed up onto the railroad tracks to cross the river, police said. She was crossing the span -- on the side opposite from its narrow pedestrian walkway -- when the train heading into the Saugatuck station struck her, according to police Capt. Vincent Penna.
The engineer stopped the train after feeling it may have struck something, but the incident was not reported to Metropolitan Transportation Authority police, Metro-North spokesman Salvatore Arena said Tuesday.
Metro-North also did not notify Westport police to the incident, Penna confirmed Tuesday.
Penna said his department learned about the train incident only when a passenger on that train, who had read news accounts of White's death, notified police Monday. That information, supported by footage from a nearby video-surveillance camera, confirmed that the train stopped on the bridge for about 20 minutes Thursday night and that the crew left the train to search around the lead car.
The video footage of the emergency stop was recorded by a camera at the station set up to alert commuters waiting inside the depot when trains are arriving.
The impact of White being struck cannot be determined from the footage, Penna said.
The accident "was in the dark and at a distance from the camera, but what was clear was that the train stopped abruptly and there were people on the track area examining the front and sides of the train," he said.
Police were able to confirm that White was struck on the bridge after divers on Monday searched the area below where the train made its emergency stop and found a cell phone and an earring on a bridge pier. It was later confirmed the phone and jewelry were White's.
The MTA police division has begun its own investigation of the events that led to White's death, Arena said.
He said the train personnel did notify Metro-North's Operations Control Center at Grand Central Terminal about the emergency stop, as required. But after finding what they called "minor damage" on the front of the head car, the crew saw no other debris or evidence that the train might have struck a person, he added.
Arena said there is no protocol to require an unconfirmed strike to MTA police.
"They reported the hit to Metro-North rail traffic control, and they got out and inspected the train for 20 minutes-plus," Arena said. "The slight damage done to the front of the train didn't give them any indication they had struck a person."
He said there is often debris on the tracks that could trigger a similar inspection. Usually it is determined that a train has hit some kind of inanimate object, including old railroad ties placed on the tracks by vandals or illegally dumped furniture or appliances. Such an incident would not usually be reported to the MTA police.
"I think Metro-North goes by the assumption that whatever was on the tracks was not there any longer," Arena said. "If it was a piece of debris it would not rise to the level that it had to be reported to the MTA police."
The incident comes on the last day of a difficult year for Metro-North Railroad, which suffered two derailments and a massive power outage that crippled the New Haven line for days, among other electrical and service problems.
She said the couple was married for 22 years and were the parents of three children, Nolan and Bailey, who are in college, and Kendra, a high school senior.
Mortensen said the couple divorced 18 months ago and that White, who resumed using her maiden name, returned to Maine. Mortensen said she's not sure how or why White, who had been a college psychology professor in Iowa, ended up in living on Owenoke Park, since she had lost touch with her following the divorce.
The house at 35 Owenoke Park where White was most recently living is owned by 35 Owenoke Park LLC, according to the town Assessor's online data base. But the name on the mailbox is "Prager," and it was previously owned by David A. Prager in 1965 and Annabelle F. Prager in 1999.
A resident of the house is Jonathan Prager, according his business website. He was a friend of White's, according to White's Facebook page. "I am thankful for the caring, support, wisdom and love this man so freely shares with me! You inspire me Jonathan Prager," she wrote. Photos of them together are also posted on the page.
Prager, according to website information, is a theatrically trained comedian, singer, songwriter, who refers to himself as the "serious comic." He did not return a phone call.
"She was fun and was always able to get us to go out and do fun things, like playing kickball," Mortensen said of White. "She was intelligent, always had advice and a hug, and was a kind person, too. Maybe too kind sometimes."
Mortensen said White was "a very loving mother," who was "crazy about her kids."
She said White's children are taking news of their mother's death "very hard."
Mortensen said the family is not only saddened by White's death, but also puzzled and confused by the way it appears to have happened. "Why was she on the tracks and didn't she hear the train coming at her?" Mortensen asked.
The family plans a memorial Wednesday in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and a funeral Friday in Maine, Mortensen said.
"We are having the memorial service here because a lot of us can't be at the funeral," Mortensen said of the Iowa remembrance. "She lived here a long time and touched a lot of people, and even though she has been gone for 18 months, there are still a lot of people who want to give their condolences to her children."
White, who on her Facebook page listed her occupation as the owner-operator of Points of Light Education and Support Center, last posted an item on Dec. 20. On Dec. 17, she posted a photo taken from her bedroom window of a deer in the backyard.
According to her Facebook page, she lived in South Paris, Maine, and Buxton, Maine, and had studied clinical psychology at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center and attended the University of Oklahoma and Bellevue University.