ZEPHYRHILLS — A babysitter, a male friend and two preschoolers were playing on a trestle in Pasco County on Monday morning when a mile-long CSX train emerged from the woods, barreling toward them.
The friend grabbed a 4-year-old girl and plunged 8 feet below into the Hillsborough River. Babysitter Heather Henderson scooped up the second child but couldn't react in time.
Hunter Fink, 2, died. Henderson was airlifted to a nearby hospital with injuries.
"This is a tragedy," Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said at a news conference at the scene. "There's no other way to say it. There is a family that is suffering greatly right now, more than anybody can imagine. If you can pray for them, please do."
Nocco said the friend, 27-year-old Cody Williams, and Hunter's 4-year-old sister, Madison Fink, had only minor injuries. Friends said Henderson suffered head trauma and a broken arm.
The accident happened north of Crystal Springs along a rural stretch east of Paul S. Buchman Highway, between Pattie Road and Jerry Road. The babysitter took the kids to play in a nearby pond just off the tracks and the group began heading back, walking on the tracks, around 11:30 a.m.
The train, with 133 cars, was traveling from Tampa to Georgia at speeds up to 60 mph. As it neared the river, heading north, the tracks veered to the northwest. Until then, anyone on the trestle might have seen only trees.
Nocco said the conductor sounded the horn but by the time the people on the bridge came into view, it was too late to stop the train. There was little else he could do, Nocco said.
A 911 call was placed at 11:55 a.m.
A few hours later, investigators were still working when the child's mother, Stephanie Ross, came running to the scene in a work uniform from Breakfast Station restaurant. Madison Fink called out, "Mommy!" and Ross crumpled to the ground, wailing.
She shared custody of the children with their father, Ryan Fink.
Kids gravitate toward Henderson for her sweet and outgoing personality, according to Lori Barton, whose daughter is the sitter's roommate. Parents trust her and she's conscientious, Barton said. She frequently watches Barton's 6-year-old grandson.
"She's one of those where you order a bounce house and she'll be up there in the mix with all the kids," Barton said. "She's 26 with the heart of a 10-year-old."
Neither the babysitter nor the family had any history with child protection workers, Nocco said. Henderson also has no criminal record in Florida. The Sheriff's Office will continue investigating the events leading up to the accident, and will seek surveillance video from CSX.
Bill Hart, 56, who lives nearby, said it's not uncommon for people to cut through private property to get to the train tracks and the trestle. Even Monday, two teenage girls could be seen walking the tracks, trying to get a closer look at the scene.
"For a long time, we've had a problem with people trespassing through our fences to get to the tracks," he said. "I don't know what the appeal is."
Pasco's sheriff agreed.
"There's a lot of people that go on these tracks," Nocco said at the news conference. "Playing on these tracks is not a game. It's a tragedy. There's a family that lost a little boy. You got train tracks coming through your yard, it's not a play area. It was a mile-long train. The thing can't stop on a dime. It's not a car. It's not a bicycle. It's a mile-long train that weighs tons, a lot of tons."
As he spoke, Nocco was briefly overpowered by the train's blaring horn as it left the area.
"You can hear the horns blowing all the time," Nocco said. "It's a warning. But it's a warning to stay off the tracks."
Senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.