By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Jennifer Bell never got to meet her niece or become a doting aunt. Her life was cut short at age 17 when on Nov. 4, 1997 she was trying to cross the train bridge in downtown Haverhill on foot when a freight train hit her, tossing her into the Merrimack River. She was with several friends, who managed to escape unharmed.
Her sister Ashley Bell, who was 14 at the time, said her parents Wayne and Pamela Bell lost a daughter and she lost her big sister.
Bell, 29, of Groveland, said she doesn’t want another family to feel the pain of loss that she and her family experienced.
To remember her sister and to remind people of the dangers of playing on the train tracks, Bell dedicated a park bench in her sister’s memory. She purchased it with money she raised and gave the remainder to charities.
During an emotional ceremony attended by more than 25 friends, family members and Mayor James Fiorentini, Ashley Bell talked about why she wanted this form of a remembrance.
“It’s a place were we can all go and talk to her, think about her or just simply smile, thinking of a great memory,” she said, telling the crowd that she’d been keeping an inscription on the bench a secret. She explained what “Angel Eyes and Open Arms, Jennifer Bell 1997 Forever Watching Over Us” meant.
“Angel Eyes is a Jeff Healy band song that Jenn listened to over and over again.... obsessed with it, as most teenagers do with songs,” Bell said.
“And ‘Open Arms,’ now this is an easy one,’” she said about a song by the band Journey. “I chose this because a few months after Jenn’s passing her graduating class sang this song as a dedication to her at school ... Perhaps these songs can be a reminder for you as well.”
Jennifer Bell was a senior at Whittier Tech at the time of her death and was studying graphic design, family members said.
James and Mary Flynn said their granddaughter Jennifer Bell loved children, would often baby-sit for friends and was a very popular girl who had many friends.
“At her wake the line stretched two blocks down the street,” James Flynn said.
Pamela Bell said her daughter Jennifer had left their home in Bradford and was on her way to Haverhill with friends when the group decided to cross the train bridge on foot. She said her daughter never walked it before as she was aware of the dangers.
“For some reason she gave in and took the shortcut,” Pamela Bell said.
Ashley Bell recalls fighting a lot with her big sister as siblings often do but that they loved each other and often sang songs in unison, such as “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles.
“Now I sing it with my daughter,” she said.
Bell said the mayor helped her select a location for the bench in George Washington Landing Park, which is next to the Crescent Yacht Club on Ferry Road in Bradford.
“It’s a good spot as my sister loved to sit and look at the river,” said Ashley Bell, who visits there often with her 3-year-old daughter McKenna.
She said her daughter calls it the “fishy park.” Fish are the theme for the playground equipment in the park, which got its name because when visiting Haverhill, Washington took a boat across the river and landed at the spot.
Ashley Bell said they when she drives by the train bridge she often thinks of questions she would have asked her sister, like “how far over the bridge were you, did you try to avoid getting hit and how did the other kids you were with get away safely?” Bell said.
The park is about one quarter-mile downstream from the bridge Jennifer Bell was trying to cross when she was killed.
“My sister was very naive for being on that bridge,” Ashley Bell said. “Teenagers at that age feel invincible and that nothing will happen to them.”
It’s been nearly 16 years since Jennifer Bell’s death and since that time the train tracks have been the scene of other tragedies, including some with an unnerving connection to the Bell family. One tragedy happened the year before Jennifer Bell’s death.
“Kyle Wentworth was a friend of my sister and she went to his funeral,” Ashley Bell said about the July 16, 1996 death of Wentworth, 19, of North Andover. Wentworth was hit by a train on tracks off Holt Road in North Andover.
“Steve Lyons and I went to Hunking Middle School together and a lot of my friends knew Jeff Fraza,” said Ashley Bell, whose life has been touched by more than one death on the tracks.
On Jan. 6, 2007, Steven Lyons, 23, of 99 Cross Road, Bradford, was hit by a freight train while walking along train tracks in Bradford on his way home from a downtown Haverhill gathering.
The latest tragedy to occur on Haverhill’s train tracks happened on Feb. 4, 2012, when well-known boxer Jeff Fraza was killed early in the morning on train tracks in an industrial area just outside of downtown. Police said Fraza, 34, appeared to be talking on a cellphone when he was hit by a train on the tracks along Hale Street.
Bell said the train bridge crossing the Merrimack River was a popular shortcut at the time of her sister’s death and that she wants changes made so it can’t be used as a shortcut between downtown and Bradford.
“It’s not a place to play or hang out,” Ashley Bell said. “I know that it’s 16 years later, but I hope to bring awareness especially with the renovations they’ll be doing.”
Fiorentini said he has asked officials with the MBTA to incorporate some form of barrier to pedestrians as part of a planned train bridge renovation project.
“The number one thing I want is to redesign it in a way there will be no more tragedies like this,” Fiorentini said. “In this day and age, this shouldn’t happen and I want that to be the real tribute to Jennifer Bell.”
Ashley Bell said that at the time of her sister’s death there were no posted no-trespassing signs to warn people about the dangers of crossing the bridge on foot. That changed after Jennifer Bell’s death when the MBTA installed signs at both ends of the train bridge warning against walking on it.
Over the years, the train bridge that crosses the Merrimack River at the western end of downtown Haverhill has been the source of many calls to police. In January 2005, Fiorentini ordered police to arrest anyone caught on the railroad bridge after the nearby Comeau Bridge was closed to pedestrians during reconstruction of that span. The MBTA installed new warning signs at both ends of the train bridge.
Bell said she isn’t afraid to call police when she see someone trying to cross the bridge on foot.
“I’ve seen kids on it and I call police every time,” she said.
Bell said her fundraising efforts brought in about $2,600. The bench cost $1,700 and Bell donated the remainder to charities, including $700 to Angel Flight and $200 to a walk for the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association a friend had participated in.
The train bridge is heavily used by MBTA commuter trains, the Amtrak Downeaster and PanAm freight trains. Because of its deteriorated condition, state transportation officials have been planning for its eventual replacement for several years. While the structure has been declared safe by MBTA officials, trains must cross at reduced speeds, which causes significant delays, especially for commuters, officials said.
Ashley Bell said she is looking to bring attention to an upcoming fundraiser in the name of Steven Lyons. She said the second annual Steve Lyons Memorial Rock-Out and Cookout will be held Aug. 24 at Winnekenni Castle. For more information visit the Steve Lyons Fund on Facebook.
Local train-related deaths:
Feb. 4, 2012: Jeff Fraza, a well known boxer, was killed early in the morning on train tracks in an industrial area just outside of downtown. Police said Fraza, 34, appeared to be talking on a cellphone when he was hit by a train on the tracks along Hale Street. It happened just before 1:30 a.m. near his home on Mulberry Street. Fraza was hit by a commuter train heading to Boston after completing its final trip to Haverhill for the night, according to MBTA officials.
Sept. 21, 2009: Sean LePage, 23, the son of Haverhill City Councilor Colin LePage, hit by a freight train near the Bradford commuter station. He was apparently sitting alongside the tracks by himself about 1:30 a.m. when he was hit, police said.
Jan. 6, 2007: Steven Lyons, 23, of 99 Cross Road, Bradford, hit by a freight train while walking along train tracks in Bradford on his way home from a downtown Haverhill gathering. The circumstances of Lyons’ death were similar to that of Sean LePage — both men were walking home to Ward Hill after spending a night downtown.
Aug. 28, 2003: Scott Wood, 44, of Haverhill tried to walk across the city’s railroad bridge and fell to his death in the Merrimack River while trying to avoid an oncoming train. Police said he ducked into an alcove on the bridge as a train passed, then emerged but lost his balance and plunged into the water.
Aug. 20, 2002: Eric Johnson, 21, of Boxford, hit by an MBTA commuter train near the Main Street Bridge in Andover. Johnson, an ice-cream truck driver, was lying on the tracks when train hit him, according to MBTA officials.
Nov. 4, 1997: Jennifer Bell, 17, of Haverhill, killed trying to cross the train bridge in Haverhill. News reports said she was using the bridge as a shortcut. A freight train hit her, tossing her into the Merrimack River.
July 16, 1996: Kyle Wentworth, 19, of North Andover, hit by a train on tracks off Holt Road in North Andover in what train workers described as a game of chicken. He was a friend of Jennifer Bell, 17, of Haverhill, who was killed trying to cross the train bridge in Haverhill.