Editor's note: Today The Rochester Voice begins a two-part series remembering the train crash that injured two Lebanon girls 10 years ago. Destiny Phaneuf, then 13, and Rachel Brown, then 14, were struck by a North Coast Railroad train not far from the Prospect Hill Road crossing in West Lebanon on May 28, 2008. Unfortunately The Rochester Voice was not able to connect with Rachel Brown for this story.
LEBANON, Maine - Destiny Phaneuf is in a pretty good place right now.
She lives with her boyfriend of two years in Manchester, works part-time as a hostess at an upscale sushi restaurant and is slowly but surely claiming her life back after it took a devastating, nightmarish turn when she was run over by a train 10 years ago today in Lebanon.
Phaneuf lost much of her left leg in the accident, has undergone seven surgeries and had to adapt to six different prosthetics during her often grueling recovery, but the mental anguish she suffered from derisive and cruel comments by classmates in the weeks and months following the crash have left her with the deeper scars.
Phaneuf, now a mature, serious and sometimes philosophical 23-year-old, agreed to an exclusive interview with The Rochester Voice earlier this week because she wanted "to tell people what really happened that day."
She said media interviews she had in the first week are nothing but a blur to her now, but what was written - that the girls were sunbathing -wasn't something she said and just isn't true.
"When an accident happens sometimes when you're in bad shape, your brain blocks memories," she said. "In less than a week, I couldn't remember and did interviews. It seemed almost like the media made up what story they wanted to put out. Now I'm older and I remember things and it makes a little more sense."
She said at the time her family was living on Jim Grant Road in Lebanon and her friend, Rachel Brown, who was also struck by the train, was living on Catfish Lane off T.M. Wentworth and very close to Milton Three Ponds.
Back in those days during the late spring and summer months one could always see a pack of teens on the trestle diving into the lake, but on Wednesday, May 28, 2008, it was a school day and the two girls were on the tracks by themselves.
Phaneuf said she was allowed to sleep over at Brown's house that Tuesday night, a very rare treat for a school night.
"We stayed up all night, and planned to skip school (Wednesday). I knew my mom's phone was shut off, so she wouldn't get a call from the school," she said.
She said Brown's mom worked overnight south of town, but the two girls knew she would have to drive up White Mountain Highway, turn right on Garage Way and left on Champion Street to get home to Catfish Lane.
"We decided to go to the train tracks to watch her go home, and wait to see her," Phaneuf said. "Then we could just walk back to her house in the afternoon and pretend we got off the bus."
"It was like around 7 a.m., and we sat down on the tracks," she said. "Then we thought her mom would see us on the tracks, so we said let's lay down, and we accidentally fell asleep."
Phaneuf said they were lying parallel inside the rails, not across the rails, so there wouldn't have been as much vibration on the wooden ties.
She said their heads were facing south, the direction from where the train would be coming.
And then darkness
A little before 11 a.m. the unthinkable happened. Phaneuf said she was struck by the locomotive's cowcatcher, which is designed to remove debris from the track.
"I was knocked out instantly, which was a good thing," Phaneuf said. "I woke up underneath the train. It's good we were knocked out, too much trauma."
She said she fractured the right side of her neck as she was dragged 182 feet. She said the train's brakes weren't applied "till it was on top of us" and the black box indicated the horn was never sounded.
Rick Sampson, director of operations for Boston Sand and Gravel and New Hampshire North Coast Railroad, said on Friday the company would have no comment on what Phaneuf said.
Meanwhile, Brown, who lost part of a foot in the accident, had been somehow flung outside the rails, while Phaneuf said she woke up underneath the train.
"I had rocks in my face, my face was swollen. And I heard Rachel screaming," Phaneuf said. "I will never forget that sound."
She said the next thing she saw was the engineer's legs and then him getting down to take a look at her.
"He was in a panic, crying, he was asking if I was OK. He asked me for my phone number and address, and I can't believe now, I actually gave him my phone number and address," she almost quipped.
"Then I tried to lift my head up and he pushed it back down, and then I asked him why my leg hurt so much and he went hysterical," she added.
"I remember him as a shadow figure, I had lost so much blood, the colors blurred together and I passed out," Phaneuf said.
She said she awoke again in a Lifeflight of Maine helicopter en route to Maine Medical Center.
"I still didn't understand where I was," she said. "I saw people trying to stick me with needles, put in IVs and I was fighting them," my mom said the medics told her later.
The shaming begins
Phaneuf said as terrifying as being run over by a train was, it did not compare to the abuse she suffered at the hands of classmates and even teachers at Noble High when she returned to class to begin her freshman year in September.
"Throughout the whole experience the way we were treated afterward was far worse than the initial accident," Phaneuf said. "To deal with so much harassment, crank calls with people saying they're coming to my house and want me dead, or at school threatening to push me down stairs on my crutches."
She said her friend, Rachel, dropped out immediately, but she tried to stick it out.
"I tried to keep going, but after a while, all the surgeries, going through life-changing issues then trying to become an adult, I was suicidal," she said. "There was nothing I could do. I was so infamous; people thought I was stupid sunbathing or on drugs, or trying to kill myself and none of that was true.
"It was just a chain of crazy events that happened."
But she said the taunts and whispers, the never-ending ridicule continued.
"Our peers were accusing us of being stupid," she said.
"Yes, I thought I would be able to hear the train, but the truth is no one is invincible."
She likened what happened to her and Brown to when people fall asleep driving.
"People fall asleep at the wheel all the time," she said. "They don't get ridiculed like we did."
In fact, NTSB numbers show that in 2014 almost 850 deaths were blamed on drowsy driving.
"And people said we were sunbathing and we were lying on beach blankets," she said. "There were no blankets. Rachel had a purse we used as sort of a pillow when we were talking, we didn't think we were going to fall asleep."
One of the things Phaneuf most wants is for people to know she will not be defined by a single tragic event that happened to her a decade ago.
"I want people to know that I was a person before that and I'm a person now," she said. "It's important that people hear the whole truth, especially coming from me and not the media."
Despite her determination to battle back in ninth grade it lasted only a month.
"I was being bullied by kids and teachers," she said. "One day my favorite teacher said I had mandatory gym. I didn't have any prosthetic and I said I didn't want to go. He said, 'well you can't run, but you can do something.'
"That's when I left, once the teachers aren't there for you, it's over."
On Tuesday, we will take a look at how Destiny battled depression and thoughts of suicide, what finally turned her life around and her need for a new prosthetic that will allow her to walk more than 10 minutes without crushing pain. If you would like to visit her gofundme page and donate to this all-to-worthy cause, click HERE.