(Nowata, Oklahoma – September 30, 2013)
Two female students at Oologah-Talala Elementary School lost their lives when their mother drove her 2008 Ford SUV across Union Pacific Railroad tracks and were struck by a southbound Union Pacific freight train shortly after school was out Monday afternoon.
Hailey Benham, 9, a fourth grader and her younger sister, Hannah Benham, 6, a first grader, both died on impact as their mother exited U.S. Highway 169, which parallels UPRR tracks, and east onto Nowata County Road 28 about four miles south of Nowata, OK.
The driver, which was the two sisters’ mother, Natalie Benham, 28, is employed in the school’s child nutrition department. She suffered leg and internal injuries and was airlifted to St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, OK, where she was listed in good condition Tuesday.
Lead investigative agency Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s Captain George Brown said the crossing had no active protection such as crossing gates, bells and flashing lights. It is virtually certain that lights and gates would have prevented this incident. Both Union Pacific 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 and gates offer the ability to drastically reduce the number of vehicle/train accidents by as much as 96%.
OHP officers also said that all three victims were wearing their seat belts, and that the driver may have been momentarily distracted and been unaware of the train, which the report said she was not trying to race.
“They’ve probably crossed that area hundreds of times,” said Oologah-Talala School Supt. Rob Armstrong. “I’m sure they were in that conversation talking about the day, how everything went.”
Both sisters were involved in the district’s youth soccer program, and their teammates wore their soccer jerseys to school Tuesday to honor their memories.
“It’s unimaginable, the weight that is not only on my heart, but our community’s heart,” lamented Supt. Armstrong, who described both girls as “Just precious children. They were spirited, very personable, very active.” He said about two dozen counselors, ministers and youth pastors were on hand at both the school district’s Lower and Upper elementary schools to help students and faculty deal with their grief.