(Ravenna, Ohio – October 6, 2013)
A 15-½ -year-old Ravenna, OH girl who had just received her learner’s permit was killed when a southbound Norfolk Southern freight train struck the driver’s side of a white SUV she was driving. The SUB was traveling east on a private road leading to a dangerous and unguarded crossing and on into the subdivision where she lived at about 5:51 P.M. Sunday afternoon.
Sierra Thornton was the driver of the SUV who was killed in the collision with the train. The crossing is not equipped with any active protection such as flashing lights and gates. It is virtually certain that lights and gates would have prevented this incident. Both Norfolk Southern and Operation Lifesaver know lights and gates are the most effective type of protection at railroad crossings. Studies that have been conducted over fifty years ago confirm that lights can gates offer the ability to drastically reduce the number of vehicle/train accidents by as much as 96%.
The collision also injured both her father as well as her four younger sisters, who were in the back seat of the vehicle, knocked the vehicle away from the tracks but carried the train a considerable distance beyond Lake Street, a signalized crossing, causing a misconception as to the exact spot of the tragedy. Sierra’s father, Andy Thornton, 41, was transported to Robinson Memorial Hospital in Akron, OH for treatment of his injuries, while his four surviving daughters, who are Katlyn, 13, Juliana, 12, Morgan, 10, and Paige, 9, were taken to Akron Children’s Hospital Medical Center for treatment of undisclosed injuries. Only Katlyn was still hospitalized Monday.
Sierra was an honor roll student at Ravenna High School, where she was also on the track team and the school’s yearbook staff. “We’re all struggling. It’s pretty somber,” said Ravenna Supt. of Schools Dennis Honkala. “It’s a family that’s all across the district, every age group.” Supt. Honkala said that counselors were needed at Ravenna’s high school, middle school and elementary school alike. “It’s a matter of expressing grief for many of the kids. For a lot of them, it’s the first time they have been exposed to death,” explained Honkala.
A spokesman from the Portage County Sheriff’s Office said that Sierra “got into a panic and didn’t know what to do and was not able to get out of the way of the train. We think she was trying to get the vehicle into another gear or trying to back up.”
“The vehicle was absolutely destroyed,” said Portage County Sheriff David Doak. “It was found upside down and it apparently rolled over once or twice at least.”
Andy Thornton, who has been a newspaper carrier for The Portage County Record-Courier for the past six years, is a single father that is raising the five girls. Record-Courier Circulation Director Gary Hurst described the elder Thornton as “an outstanding carrier. He’s just a wonderful guy.”
The crossing, which has no record of previous accidents, accommodates 62 trains daily, including Amtrak passenger trains, at a top allowable speed of 60 mph.
A community vigil was scheduled for Monday night at the family’s church, Ravenna First Church of the Nazarene.