Kelsea and Savannah Webster and their friend Essa Ricker were all in love with nature; and they had a particular fondness for Covered Bridge Canyon, on the edge of Uinta National Forest. It was here, moreover, that they headed to take pictures as summer turned to fall one October day in 2011. But they couldn’t have known that what they would capture in one photo was to tragically kill them moments later.
Kelsea and Savannah Webster grew up in Sonora, California. Evidently energetic, both girls loved sports, with 15-year-old Kelsea having developed a love of volleyball, while her 13-year-old sister preferred basketball. They also had a shared artistic streak and participated in a local theater group for several years.
Now in July 2011, a few years after their parents had divorced, Kelsea and Savannah moved to Spanish Fork, Utah. They would live there with their father, Dave, who worked as a carpenter in the area. But they left behind their mother, Jayna, who was working in a Sonora medical center, and two sisters, Amanda and Brenna.
Kyla Meyer, founder and director of the girls’ summer theater camp, had known Kelsea since the camp launched. “She was one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever known. She was like a sister to me,” Meyer explained to The Union Democrat shortly after the two teenagers had passed away.
Janae Perkins, meanwhile, had also befriended Kelsea and Savannah at the theater camp. She described the sisters as being very welcoming, and she would sometimes attend sleepovers as the trio’s friendship grew. Others, for their part, praised the Webster girls for their generosity, friendliness and passion.
It stands to reason, then, that the sisters had no problem making new friends when they relocated to Spanish Fork. And one of the first they met was Essa Ricker, who attended the same high school as Savannah. “They were three peas in a pod,” the girls’ grandmother, Karen Webster, explained to The Salt Lake Tribune.
The three girls would attend camp together and shared a love of choral singing. Gracen Harvey, a school friend in Sonora, had heard Kelsea sing at their eighth-grade graduation. As she recalled to The Union Democrat, “She was a great singer. I can remember her singing, and I can just hear it going through my head over and over.”
And the two sisters, along with their new friend Essa, also shared a passion for nature – which, sadly, ultimately led to tragedy. On October 16, 2011, the three girls headed up to Covered Bridge Canyon, near their Spanish Fork home. Karen Webster told The Salt Lake Tribune, “They just loved nature, and they were taking pictures of fall.”
It seems that the girls also got a thrill from seeing the trains rush close by on the railroad tracks. “They were watching the train, waving to the [engineer] as he went by,” Karen told The Salt Lake Tribune. Then the teens lined up next to the tracks and took a selfie as the locomotive approached.
“Standing right by a train ahaha this is awesome!!!!” Savannah posted on Facebook at about 6:30 p.m. that October 16 evening. The three girls’ blonde hair flowed in the wind as the westbound train rushed by, and their faces were beaming as they captured their rush of excitement in a selfie.
However, the image also captured the girls’ impending fate. In the top right corner of the picture is a set of headlights. And, mesmerized by the train rushing past in front of them, what the teens couldn’t see behind them was the train heading in the opposite direction.
“They were in their own little world,” John Anderson told Inside Track, Union Pacific’s community website. John was the train conductor on the eastbound train that day; and alongside him was engineer Michael Anderson – no relation – who desperately tried to warn the girls of their approach.
Michael sounded the train’s horn, but the girls didn’t even flinch. It’s thought that the clamor of the westbound train’s metal wheels on the metal tracks and the noise of the wind as it rushed by drowned out the sound of the eastbound train and its warning. It seems that Savannah, Kelsea and Essa had no idea the locomotive was coming.
In any event, John Anderson had no time to stop the locomotive. A train rolling at a relatively low speed of 55 miles per hour will need more than a mile’s length of track to come to a halt with the emergency brakes applied. The eastbound train was traveling towards the girls at a speed of 39 miles per hour.
“We watched in horror as we got closer,” John explained to Inside Track. He also went on to describe how he and his colleague had begun to yell at the girls in the vain hope that it might have some effect. “We saw them for about 12 seconds until they disappeared from our sight and the train continued moving forward,” John said.
The train subsequently continued for a further quarter-mile before it finally came to a stop. John then rushed back toward the teenagers. He checked for a pulse on the first girl he came to but found nothing, and another of the teens had obviously lost her life. Savannah, however, was still breathing.
According to Sergeant Spencer Cannon from Utah County PD, first responders heard Savannah screaming when they arrived. So, she was rushed to Primary Children’s Medical Center, where she underwent surgery the next day. The teen was placed in a medically induced coma.
Doctors found that Savannah had many broken bones, while she also had blood clots and internal bleeding. Most concerning, however, was a serious brain injury and hemorrhages throughout her brain. Over the following days, moreover, doctors realized that they were injuries from which Savannah would never recover.
On a blog that she kept in the aftermath, mom Jayna wrote, “We spoke to the doctors today, and they informed us that Savvy’s brain injuries were too great. Even though they’ve done everything possible, Savannah will not be able to recover any further. We will keep her on life support till the end of the day, but it’s time to say goodbye, for now, to an angel that walked among us.”
“The accident that took my daughters’ lives was preventable and a good illustration of how close a train can be without [someone] hearing it,” Jayna subsequently said at a railroad safety campaign launch in 2016. “No one should have to go through this, and I hope people will seriously think about the campaign’s rail safety message and share it with their loved ones.”