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Published: Monday, 1/11/2010

Tragedy on the tracks: Blast of train horns haunts Holland teen

BY BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Nearly a month ago, 16-year-old Brianna Mullinger of Holland lost her left leg in a train accident.

Her best friend, Cody Brown, 15, lost his life.

As Brianna works to recover from her injuries, the Brown family is struggling to adjust to life without Cody.

The quiet of the Brown home presents a stark contrast to the crowded bustle of the Mullinger house, where Bri lives with her mother and three of her four siblings.

The two families sat down with The Blade last week to talk about how the Dec. 16 accident changed their lives.

Bri Mullinger gets goosebumps when she hears the blast of a train horn.

“There's a train,” she says automatically, her blue eyes wide and alert. She never noticed the trains passing near her house before. Never heard them.

That changed Dec. 16 when the teenager was struck by an Amtrak train she tried to beat while walking to Springfield High School with her best friend, Cody Brown.

Cody didn't make it. It was a miracle that she did, doctors told the Mullinger family.

After three weeks at Toledo Hospital and extensive surgeries, including one to amputate her badly damaged left leg, Bri is home.

Now, she can't close her eyes without hearing a train horn and the last thing Cody called out as he raced ahead of her.

“He said, ‘See you on the other side, buddy,'” Bri recalled.

Cody and Bri were inseparable. Best friends since middle school, Cody spent so much time at the Mullinger house that her mother, Teri Mullinger, said he fought with Bri's three younger siblings “just like a brother would,” and she “yelled at him just like he was one of my own.”

“He was a huge part of our family,” Ms. Mullinger said.

“He was the only one that ate mom's cooking,” Bri said. “And he said she looked good in pink.”

Inside their tiny living room now made smaller by a hospital bed near the front door, Bri took her mom's hand and gently scolded her as she broke down in tears.

“We're not allowed to cry,” Bri told her mom, reminding her of their self-imposed rule: no tears until nighttime.

The accident

Though no one knew what Bri would remember when she came out of the coma induced to help her heal, she recalls the morning of the accident with amazing clarity.

She said both she and Cody were running about 10 minutes late when they met up at the Shell station on Angola Road halfway between their homes — their daily meeting spot — to get a cappuccino before school.

Cody had dressed up for a field trip that day and dropped his coffee on his dress shoes as they hustled down McCord Road toward school. Bri said she stopped to wipe off his shoes, told him to “quit whining,” and passed him her own drink.

They looked up to see the railroad crossing gates descending.

“He said, ‘Let's go,'” she recalled.

The teens assumed the oncoming train was one of the slower-moving freight trains that could make kids late for school, Bri said, not an Amtrak passenger train moving nearly 80 miles per hour.

They normally didn't see that train. Amtrak's Capitol Limited, which runs from Washington to Chicago, also was late that day — passing through Holland shortly after 7 a.m. instead of its usual5:30 a.m.

Bri said the train seemed about a football field away as they darted toward the tracks to cross. The train blew its whistle and nearby cars honked their horns, but Bri remembers no sound.

“We grabbed hands, and we were holding hands,” she said. “We ran, and we hesitated. Then we started running again, and I hesitated. We let go, and he said, ‘I'll see you on the other side.' And that's all I remember.”

Cody was just steps ahead of her.

“I think he thought I was going to wait for the train and he was going to wait for me on the other side,” she said. “Because he thinks he's Superman and can make it.”

Clearly regretful, she can't help but replay those final moments with Cody.

“I just miss him,” Bri said. “I feel like I could have just grabbed his arm, made him stop running.”

Screeching brakes

Mornings at the Mullinger house are hectic. Bri and her two sisters keep the bathroom occupied, as Ms. Mullinger, a single mom, helps her 7-year-old son get ready for school.

Bri's sisters sometimes walked to school with her, but it was cold that day and they took the bus. Her mother was in the bathroom when they shouted their good-byes.

Ms. Mullinger said she was in the shower when she heard the screeching brakes of a train.

“It was like steel just ripping,” she said. “I just thought to myself, ‘My God, somebody's life just changed.' I knew there was an accident … never crossing my mind that it would be any of my kids.”

Ms. Mullinger received a text alert to her cell phone about the accident from a television news outlet. It was followed by a text message from a friend of Bri, asking if she had made it to school.

She called the high school and soon found herself talking to Superintendent Kathryn Hott. Mrs. Hott told her to get to the hospital.

Bri's dad, David Mullinger of Fort Wayne, was at work at the McDonald's restaurant he manages when he got a phone call not long after the accident.

“I thought it was Bri that was calling me because she calls me when she walks to school and I'm at work,” he said. “I thought it was her that morning, but it was her mom saying, ‘It's a 911 emergency. Brianna's been hit by a train.'”

He and his wife rushed to Toledo and spent the next two weeks at the hospital.

16 hours of surgery

In the Toledo Hospital emergency room, Bri was rushed into surgery.

“I just yelled at her in her ear, ‘You better fight. You better not die on me,'” Ms. Mullinger recalled. “It was the worst day of my life.”

Bri was only partially struck by the train, but the impact shattered her pelvis and broke her collar bone, two ribs, and her nose. Her left leg was crushed from the knee down, her right elbow was shattered when she landed on it.

“I thought she was going to die that day. I was sure when I found out the train actually hit her and killed Cody,” Ms. Mullinger said. “I thought for sure. But the longer she made it through surgery, the calmer I felt.”

Surgery lasted almost 16 hours. A team of surgeons at Toledo Hospital used pins and plates to reconstruct her pelvis and elbow. Miraculously, there was no internal bleeding, Ms. Mullinger said, no major damage to her organs.

There was vascular damage in her left leg and no blood flow to her foot, which doctors tried to repair with a cadaver artery, Ms. Mullinger said.

It didn't work.

Two days after the accident, Bri's left leg was amputated at the knee — something she wishes hadn't happened. Still, her mother said there was no choice, and doctors assure them Bri will run, jump, and walk again with a prosthesis.

Bri remained on a ventilator in a drug-induced coma until Christmas. She was still groggy when she told her parents she had just seen her friend, Aly Courville, 14, who died in July only months after a heart transplant.

“She said that Aly told her to fly home. She said that repeatedly,” Ms. Mullinger said. “She lifted up this hand, and just waved. And said, ‘Bye, God.' And she was so happy.”

Bri doesn't remember doing that. She doesn't remember a vision of Aly.

Still, her mother is convinced.

“When she woke, I just knew that she had been with God,” she said.

Learning of a loss

While Bri remembered the accident, she didn't realize that Cody had died.

“She kept saying things like, ‘I'm so glad he made it,'” Ms. Mullinger said. “I would just leave. I would just find a reason to leave. Nobody's ever prepared me for telling my daughter that her best friend in the world didn't make it.”

Bri learned the truth from her parents the next day.

She's still struggling to come to terms with the loss.

“I'm just glad he didn't feel anything and wasn't cold or scared or anything,” Bri said.

No one seems shocked Bri is home after just three weeks in the hospital.

“I've always called her a beast. She learned how to walk at 9 or 10 months old, and I always said, ‘Bri, you're a beast at this. You're a beast at that,'” her father said. “When she started playing soccer and basketball, I said, ‘You're a beast on the field. You're a beast on the court.' I knew if any one of our four children could go through something like this, it would be Bri.”

Mr. Mullinger is encouraged to see her distinctive personality and sense of humor shine through despite what she's endured.

“She's got names for everything. Don't say stump; it reminds her of a tree,” Mr. Mullinger said, referring to her amputated leg, which Bri calls her nugget. “Her hand wound is her beef jerky. She's a hoot. She's Bri. If she wasn't saying stuff like that I would be worried.”

The road ahead

Bri faces more surgery this summer to reverse a colostomy and to bring her amputation to midthigh in preparation for a prosthesis.

It's unknown whether she will return to school this school year, in part because her weakened pelvis does not allow her to sit for long periods. Tutors will help her keep up with school work at home.

Until she's back, Bri, a sophomore, will be sorely missed at school, friends and teachers say.

“The first day back, it was really hard. I would walk through the hallways, and normally she would be right there with me. We would walk to every class together,” said Katie Metz, who was in basketball, soccer, and band with Bri.

Band Director Kathy McGrady said emotions remained high as students returned to school last week.

“Band is like a big family,” she said. “It's going to be hard on all of us.”

A ‘bad choice'

Neither the Mullinger nor Brown families blame the railroad or Amtrak for the accident.

“I think it was a 16-year-old's misjudgment of the train that was supposed to be there. It was a different train,” Mr. Mullinger said. “I think it was a teenage bad choice.”

Both families said they would support installing a gate to block the sidewalk that pedestrians use to cross the railroad tracks, but Ms. Mullinger said she won't push for trains to slow down.

“I don't want rules to come out of this that would stop trains or to slow them,” Ms. Mullinger said. “I just want something where we can respect them and teach our kids how incredibly dangerous they are.”

Bri said she would be willing to speak publicly about train safety, although she doesn't know what she'd say other than “don't try to beat the train,” and “don't be dumb.”

“Everyone tells me I'm their hero, that I'm strong,” Bri said. “That's all I get. That I'm everyone's hero. Even though I ran in front of a train. I feel like an idiot. I ran in front of a train.”

Contact Bridget Tharp at:btharp@theblade.comor 419-724-6086.



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