LAKELAND — A couple who romanticized trains and lived a modern-day adventure by riding railroad cars across the United States were killed when a train dumped its load of coal at a Florida power plant.
Ever since Christopher Artes was a teenager in suburban Maryland, he had an illegal and dangerous kind of wanderlust — hitching rides on trains. Over the summer, he fell in love with Medeana Hendershot, who shared his passion. They traveled from Georgia to Chicago, then back to Tennessee, with Artes sending his mother pictures along the way. They wanted to spend winter in Florida because it was warm.
"If he had to die so young, at least he died at a moment where he was on top of the world," said Susan Artes, Christopher's mother.
Artes, 25, and Hendershot, 22, were found Sunday in coal by power plant workers. It's not clear when or how they died.
Sometime over the weekend, the train pulled into the city of Lakeland's power plant. As the railcars arrive, the bottom opens and cars drop coal several stories below onto a waiting truck. Officials were not sure whether the couple were sitting on top of the coal or were riding in an empty car and were dropped onto a mound of coal, then hit or buried by another load.
Artes died from asphyxiation, meaning he was likely buried alive. Hendershot died from blunt-force trauma, so she could have been hurt falling or by coal falling on her.
In high school, Artes embraced the punk rock scene and met some "traveler kids," his mother said. It was then he began climbing aboard freight trains for short trips, either to get around, or for the experience. This summer, with his girlfriend, he embarked on his longest trip yet, with no set plans other than the adventure. The couple wanted to stay in Florida, then return to Maryland for a visit with his family in the spring.
"I don't recommend it and I encourage people not to do it," said Kevin Rice, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., who writes about his train-hopping adventures from 20 years ago on his website.
Rice listed the dangers of riding the rails: falling off the car, getting robbed by a vagrant, being jolted or crushed when the train's slack lessens.
Artes called his mom three times a week. Artes' mother said her son had a train-hopping manual, but it was stolen at some point. "We were always worried about him.."