NORWOOD, Pa. - As the high-speed Acela train came thundering down the rails, a teenage girl screamed at her friends to get off the tracks.
But Gina Gentile and Vanessa Dorwart did not move. They hugged as the train bore down on them at speeds up to 110 mph, carrying out a suicide pact that the witness herself had backed out of only moments before.
The loss has shaken Norwood and its neighboring towns just outside Philadelphia. There were hints the pretty and popular high school sophomores may have been suffering from depression, but experts say such suicide pacts are extremely uncommon — especially among teens.
Pacts are made because suicide is so daunting — and they are broken for the same reason, said Thomas Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University.
“This is a deeply fearsome thing,” Joiner said. “We’re not wired for it; our bodies will recoil from it.” Gee and Ness, or Gee-Gee and Nessa, were funny, outgoing and as close as sisters, said classmates at Interboro High School in Prospect Park.
Dorwart’s obituary describes a teen with “a wonderful, caring personality, amazing blue eyes and a pretty smile.” The second of five children, she had played youth soccer and softball and was a former Girl Scout. She would have turned 16 on Wednesday.
Gentile, whose father died a few years ago, was one of six children.
The 16-year-old didn’t judge her friends, always thought of others first and “was never one to worry about herself,” said Patricia Roeder, a junior at Interboro. But Gentile had been hard hit by the sudden death of her boyfriend, who was killed by a car just weeks ago while riding his bike.
And Dorwart’s parents say their daughter seemed withdrawn from family events and had talked of seeing a school counselor, even as she planned her upcoming Sweet 16.
On the snowy morning of Feb. 25, police say Gentile and a friend cut class with the intention of killing themselves. They walked the two blocks to the Norwood regional rail station, where Dorwart — who had stayed home that day — met up with them.
As the train barreled its way south from Boston to Washington, Gentile heard the whistle and stepped on the tracks. Dorwart ran to join her, even as the third girl reneged and implored them to stop.
Text messages between Dorwart and the witness seem to confirm this was no accident, police said. The Delaware County medical examiner agreed, ruling the deaths suicides.
But Kimberly Dorwart, Vanessa’s mother, finds that hard to accept.
“I know she wanted to live,” Dorwart told the Delaware County Daily Times. “I know my daughter did not leave here with the intention of being hit by a train.” The Associated Press was unable to contact the Dorwarts; Gentile’s relatives have requested privacy.
About 1 percent of suicides result from pacts, most of which are between older, partnered adults who have endured a recent hardship, said Brian Daly, an assistant professor of public health at Temple University.
Experts say suicide clusters — single occurrences that happen closely together — are more common in adolescents. Last year, the city of Palo Alto, Calif., was sent reeling by four teen suicides-by-train in less than six months. Two suicidal students from Manasquan High School in New Jersey were fatally hit by trains within two months in 2008.
Media reports that romanticize or sensationalize suicide can encourage copycats, said Dr. Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. At the same time, she said, suicides should not be covered up.
“It’s a fine line,” Clayton said.
She noted nearly all suicides stem from underlying psychological problems such as depression. Nationwide, about 4,400 people between the ages of 10 and 24 kill themselves annually, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pat Carr, who sells train tickets at the Norwood station, is grateful she wasn’t working the day of the suicides. The grandmother of two Interboro students, Carr was taken aback at the loss. “It just breaks your heart, my God,” Carr said Monday.
“They’re so young.” Later that day, teens gathered to grieve outside the ticket office at an impromptu shrine of candles, balloons, stuffed animals and flowers. Some brought homemade posters of Dorwart and Gentile, covered with photos and messages.
A few feet away, Roeder sat next to a pair of crosses overlooking the tracks. She said no one will ever understand what took place that morning. “What happened here is going to stay here,” Roeder said.
“You’re never going to know.” As she spoke, Roeder slowly became surrounded by a group of students who began to share their feelings as well. Then a train hammered by — WHOOSHWHOOSHWHOOSHWHOOSH! — and the teens fell into an uncomfortable silence.
That was like a slap in the face, said one. No, said Roeder, that’s just life moving on.