Snapshot of a tragedy

Phyllis Wiest died in a train trestle accident right after her husband, Bud, took her picture. A year later, he finds strength in his youngest daughter as he rebuilds his family.
Sunday, November 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:38 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Even though Bud Wiest still keeps the film negatives in his dresser drawer, the photographs he shot of the Sept. 27, 2003, sunset over the Missouri River will never be used as his wife intended.

He remembers shooting the pictures of Phyllis, 45, holding their 18-month-old daughter, Katherine, standing on the Isabell train trestle that spans Big Loose Creek near Frankenstein.

He remembers joining them on the bridge, peering through his 35mm Pentax camera at the yellow evening sky sparkling on the river and snapping the color photographs Phyllis wanted for an upcoming Lewis and Clark painting contest.

He remembers focusing his lens on Katherine’s thin, blond hair against his wife’s blue blouse and the railroad tracks shimmering from an afternoon rainstorm.

But 14 months later, he still hasn’t figured out why he couldn’t sense the flickering headlights or the roar of the Amtrak passenger train racing toward them until it was too late.

The family found themselves trapped on the bridge with no place to outrun the train as it rounded a curve and barreled down at them at 65 mph. They had no choice but to sprint toward the closest end of the trestle — into the path of the train — and leap off the tracks.

Bud, a burly 50-year-old, threw himself into a ravine a split-second before the train rushed by. He was uninjured except for the startling jolt that rocketed through his body when he landed.

As he climbed up to the tracks, he expected to see Phyllis on the other side. He noticed Katherine in the bushes next to the tracks, screaming from the pain in her broken right arm. Cradling Katherine in his trembling arms, Bud scanned the bridge and called for his wife.

He found no trace of her.

The train had stopped around the bend, out of sight. Bud thought he spotted Phyllis in her blue blouse approaching him on the trestle, but soon realized it was the train’s two engineers in blue uniforms walking toward him.

“Have you seen my wife?” Bud asked. “Where is she?”

“Just get back in your car,” one of the engineers said. “She’s been hit.”

“No she wasn’t. That’s impossible,” Bud said. “Take me to her.”

“You have to go back to your car,” the engineer said. “She’s been hit. She’s in the river.”

More than 40 trains traverse the riverside rail line between Jefferson City and St. Louis every day. And every one of them crosses the Isabell trestle, tucked below the towering bluffs between Bonnots Mill and Frankenstein.

Nearby residents say Isabell used to have a post office and served as a stopping point for steam engines.

These days, the abandoned stop is dotted with sun-bleached beer cans and frayed cigarette butts. Because it provides one of the area’s only unobstructed views of the Missouri River, Isabell has become a popular spot for teenage parties and a dumping ground for makeshift methamphetamine labs and stolen property.

Before the commuter train threw Phyllis’ body off the 100-foot-long bridge into the river, she tossed Katherine into a patch of bushes off to the side.

“I definitely think Phyllis sacrificed her life for Katherine,” Bud says.

More than a year later, Bud says he still can’t make sense of that evening on the trestle.

“I feel like there’s a definite purpose for what has happened,” he says. “I’m not smart enough to know that purpose yet, but I know there is one. I ask why it had to happen to me, but I know God has his reasons.”

‘The wrong direction’

What Bud regrets most is his decision four years ago to move from Indiana to Missouri to live closer to his wife’s family.

“The move started everything in the wrong direction,” Bud says.

In August 2000, Phyllis left Logansport, Ind., for Bonnots Mill with four of their five children — Shaina, a high school sophomore; Manny, a 12-year-old with Down syndrome; Jason, 11; and Anna, 6. Colin, 18, stayed with family friends in Indiana to finish high school.

Only a month after the move, a family Labor Day outing with Phyllis’ parents near Steelville ended in tragedy.

The Wiests were cooling off in the knee-high water of Huzzah Creek, which weaves through Phyllis’ parents’ farm. They lost sight of Anna for a few minutes and found her submerged in 4 feet of water, her foot trapped in a tree root. Bud tried to revive her, but it was too late.

A few hours later, a doctor at Salem Memorial District Hospital in Dent County asked the Wiests for permission to take Anna off life support. She was brain dead.

After Anna drowned, Bud took three months off before returning to Indiana to resume work as an archivist with the Genealogical Society of Utah, a nonprofit backed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For the next six months, he lived out of a suitcase in a motel room during the week and drove six hours each Friday to spend weekends in Missouri.

Phyllis home-schooled Jason and Manny, preparing them for high school, but the area held too many sad memories after Anna died. She wanted to leave Bonnots Mill for St. Louis, her hometown.

Bud requested a transfer to Missouri, but his employer refused. His employer wanted Bud to work five eight-hour days instead of four 10-hour shifts. Bud left the job shortly thereafter. That’s when Bud left Indiana for good with the intention of starting a new project archiving Missouri state records in Jefferson City. But he was told to wait at least six months until the man he was replacing decided to retire.

He couldn’t afford not to work, so he did a couple of odd jobs before starting the night shift as a prison guard at the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City in October 2001. There, he earned $11 an hour to support his wife and four children.

What was supposed to be a short-lived stint at the prison dragged on for 18 months; his bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and his 15 years of experience with the church weren’t opening any other doors.

By the summer of 2003, Bud quit his prison job to drive trucks at a quarry in Warrenton for $18 an hour.

The ‘miracle’

Phyllis’ grief consumed the family. She cried at breakfast and at dinner and often prayed aloud to join Anna in heaven.

“After losing Anna, she was afraid everyone was going to die,” says Shaina, now 20. Phyllis tried to ease her sorrow with her oil paintings, quilts and craft shows, where she’d sell homemade lye soaps. She’d write poetry and knit sweaters, while Bud watched football on television on Sundays.

“She wasn’t happy staying in one place,” Bud says. “She felt like (the move) was just a bad nightmare from the start — just a series of mistakes.”

What kept their marriage together, Bud says, was the desire to have another child. They thought their age would prevent them and considered fostering or adopting a child. They explained to their children that a new baby was not meant to replace Anna, but to help them heal.

“There’s an empty spot in our lives and we’re trying to fill it,” Bud says he told them.

That was until Katherine came along.

The Wiests called Katherine their miracle baby because they were in their 40s and she helped them cope with the loss of Anna. Katherine arrived on New Year’s Day and was the first baby born in 2002 at St. Mary’s Health Center in Jefferson City.

Shaina says Katherine’s presence energized her mother’s creative spirit by helping her focus on her paintings to earn extra money and help manage the family debts.

Her mother hungered to move to a new house, Shaina says, away from Bonnots Mill.

“She was starting to feel happy again,” Shaina says.

Even so, Shaina says she remembers remarks by her mother about wanting to reunite with Anna in heaven. One conversation during a shopping trip together stands out: “With all my heart, I know you can take care of Katherine if anything happens to me.”

“She was prepared for (death),” Shaina says. “She was ready.”

But to this day, Katherine is traumatized by passing trains, Shaina says, and insists the little girl knows how her mother died.

“She knows mom is in heaven with Jesus and Anna,” Shaina says.

Neighbors say the Wiests have worked to resolve their problems by themselves. After Phyllis was killed in the train accident, Shaina became a mother to Katherine, says Fred Thoenen, 65, a neighbor and friend who sometimes brought the Wiests meals and hay for Shaina’s horse.

“(Shaina) has carried such a tremendous load,” he says. “Her mom was the glue that kept that family together.”

But, Shaina left in August for Provo, Utah, to earn money for college classes.

Bud says he’s had little time to mourn his wife’s death because he has to raise Manny, Jason and Katherine. Colin, now 22, is on a religious mission in Portugal.

Shaina says she feels guilty for leaving her father to raise Katherine alone and may even move home this summer to help her father.

“I’m not Katherine’s mother. I’m her sister,” Shaina says. “My life would have stayed on hold. It wasn’t going anywhere.”

Now that Shaina has moved to Utah, “it’s been a tough life for him,” Thoenen says. “He’s done a hell of a job trying to keep that family together.”

Starting at dawn

These days, Bud leaves his house at 5 a.m. on weekdays to drive Katherine to her babysitter, Ruth Dudenhoeffer, of Frankenstein, before his two-hour commute to the quarry near Sullivan.

Although keeping that schedule has been difficult on both of them, Bud says he relishes his mornings alone with Katherine, who often peers into the stars at daybreak and asks where her mother is.

“She’s in heaven with Anna,” Bud tells her.

Dudenhoeffer says Katherine likes to dial her toy plastic telephone and pretend to talk with her mother.

Working full time and caring for Katherine consumes nearly all of Bud’s waking hours, so he hasn’t been able to think much about dating again.

“When you’ve been married 23 years and all of a sudden you’re single again, it’s a major shock,” Bud says. Besides, he doesn’t think his kids would like the idea of him being with another woman.

Bud knows his kids well.

“I don’t want to be there when he does start dating,” Shaina says. “I want him to be happy, but I don’t want someone coming into his life and trying to become a mother figure for Katherine.”

Still, Bud hasn’t ruled out dating, but for now spends most of his time outside of work raising Katherine.

On the day before Thanksgiving, he was laid off after 18 months with Lafarge North America because the quarry in Sullivan had run dry. Bud was hoping for a transfer to another quarry in Wright City by January, but was told last week he would not be rehired.

Bud says he plans to spend the next month trying to revive his freelance photography business from years ago. If that doesn’t pan out, he’ll have to fall back on a job offer from a friend — waterproofing basements.

As he ponders what’s next, Bud struggles to rationalize how snapping a few photographs of a sunset could become such a nightmare. He has even questioned his Mormon beliefs but expects God is testing him.

“That’s the big turmoil in my mind,” Bud says. “Why does God let this happen? Phyllis and Anna are already there (in heaven), and it’s up to us to make it back to be with them again.”

‘A dangerous place’

Osage County Sheriff Carl Fowler says the Isabell trestle is a dangerous place to walk because a wooded curve obscures the view of approaching trains from upriver. He says he would like to see the one-lane dirt road that provides public access to the trestle blocked off because the bluffs just southeast of the trestle seem to swallow the sound of eastbound trains.

“When that train is coming from the west, you cannot hear them,” Fowler says. “You cannot hear it until it’s literally there.”

The trestle is owned by Union Pacific Railroad, says Kevin Lewis, rail safety manager with the Missouri Department of Transportation.

“That’s not the place to be. That’s not the place to walk,” Lewis says. “If you’re not trespassing, you won’t get hit.”

Since Phyllis was killed, the brush surrounding the tracks has been cut back and Union Pacific has erected four steel “no trespassing” signs and metal barricades flanking both ends of the trestle.

Bud doesn’t ever plan to go back to the bridge. Nor does he have any interest in looking at the pictures he took on Sept. 27, 2003. The cold metal barricades are crude reminders of a life the Wiests thought was full of new hope in the form of an 18-month-old miracle child — a child Bud says he should have been holding that day.

But blame and regret won’t pay Bud’s priceless debt or change the past any more than the “No Trespassing” signs will erase Bud’s happy memories of the family’s weekend hikes together through Painted Rock State Park.

With Phyllis gone, Bud says he’s finding out how to be a father again. On Friday, he took Manny, Jason and Katherine on a three-day weekend in Branson that Phyllis planned before she was killed.

On weeknights at home, Bud lies in bed with Katherine for nearly an hour each night, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or reading “Thumbelina” and “The Dog Jumped Over the Moon,” her favorite books. Other nights, he bounces her on his knees while reciting the alphabet or teaching her to count past 10.

“It’s kind of a ritual that she likes to go through,” Bud says. “Sometimes we just listen to music. Sometimes we dance. She likes to extend it out as long as possible because she’s got to be up at 5 to go back to the babysitter.”

Now, Bud says, he must discover the strength within himself and in his faith to ensure Katherine gets the same opportunities her older siblings had growing up.

“She’s basically all I have left of Phyllis,” Bud says. “I see Phyllis through her. I couldn’t imagine life without her.”

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