"The whole town just cried" after woman on her way to work died in train collision
Heather Balven, killed in truck-train crash March 13.
Heather Balven and her 2-year-old son, Jack.

HARTFORD, Ill. -- Heather Sheree Balven, a St. Louis geotechnical engineer, was alone in her company pickup as she headed to a pipeline construction site Thursday morning, crossing the railroad tracks she'd crossed many times on her route to conduct soil tests.

But for reasons unknown to investigators, Balven drove into the path of a northbound Amtrak train going faster than 70 mph. The force of the collision obliterated the pickup. Balven was killed instantly.

Friends of Balven, 31, mourned her Friday as a talented woman, a standout in her childhood hometown of Waynesville, Mo., who was giddy with the recent news that she was three months pregnant with her second child. Balven had a 2-year-old son.

"The whole town just cried yesterday," said Luge Hardman, describing the community of Waynesville, Mo. That's where Balven's parents live and where Balven served as the president of the senior class. "She was an all-around girl. One of our golden girls," said Hardman, a retired history teacher.

Madison County Coroner Stephen P. Nonn said Balven was pronounced dead at the scene at 8:03 a.m. Thursday of "multiple traumatic injuries."  Nonn said that routine toxicological tests for alcohol and drugs have been submitted.

Balven was driving a Ford pickup east on 7th Street in Hartford when it ran into the path of the Chicago-bound Amtrak train carrying four crew members and 64 passengers. No one on the train was injured, Amtrak says.

The tracks at that location have an x-shaped "cross-bucks" warning sign -- but no gate, lights or bells, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. Investigators who downloaded details of the train's movements from its so-called "event recorder" found that Amtrak did everything right, Magliari said.

"Our train was going just under the speed limit there of 79, and we were sounding our horn and, of course, as it happened we were braking," Magliari said Friday. "So everything from the download of the locomotive (event recorder) shows we were doing everything we were supposed to be doing."

A man who worked at the job site with Balven said driving east over the tracks can be tricky.

"I'll cross it a couple, three times a day, and going from east to west you can see pretty good," said Stephen Smith, who works for L.G. Barkus & Sons at the job site. "But when you are coming from the west going east, when you cross that little park there, you've almost got to be on one set of tracks before you can see the farther east tracks.

"It's just a bad location," Smith said. "There's several obstructions there. Some bushes."

John Grigg, ranking officer for the village of Hartford's police department, said the accident at that intersection is the first one in his 25-plus years in Hartford. "We're very sorry," Grigg said. "We give our condolescenes to the family." The village of Hartford has about 1,500 residents. City officials say they've never known of any push to get crossing gates or lights at that crossing.

Unlike Smith's description, Grigg said the visibility for motorists crossing the tracks is unobstructed.

"You can see a good distance in both directions," Grigg said.

Grigg said his accident reconstruction investigators are still working on their report so he had no new details to provide Friday.

Smith said of Balven: "She was just a friend of everybody here, a very nice lady. We're really going to miss her." Her death shook everyone at the job site Thursday, he said. They are building a pumping station for Trans Canada, and they've been out there four or five weeks together. He said Balven inspected their work and conducted soil testing. She worked for Kansas City-based Terracon.

Smith said the 7th street crossing where Balven died isn't the only route to work.

"Hawthorne Road is down the street from 7th Street and it has lights (at the crossing)," Smith said.

"Maybe it was a shortcut for her," Smith said. "They may never know."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Friday morning. Balven's family members are coming to St. Louis to make those plans. Arrangements will be handled by Forever Oak Hill Funeral Home in Kirkwood.

Balven's husband, Matt, couldn't be reached for comment. Hardman, the former teacher who is close friends with the family, said Balven's parents are both retired teachers; her father was a longtime soccer coach at the high school. In addition to being senior class president, Balven was the high school's president of the Student Government Association at Waynesville High School with its student body of about 1,500. She also was only the second student ever from Waynesville to receive the Missouri Leadership Award, which is an honor from the governor that she won in 1996. She graduated from the University of Missouri at Rolla with an engineering degree.

Gary Young, one of her high school teachers, said: "Every kid in this building knew her name and knew who she was. She never put herself above anybody. That's what made her unique. A lot of times, when someone becomes student body president, it goes to her head. Not with Heather. She'd be the first one to do the worst job."

Young said those who knew her are numb with sadness. "It hits you pretty hard," he said.

Illinois Commerce Commission officials, who oversee the state's railroads, say the accident that killed Balven is the first and only accident at that crossing on record.

Elsewhere in the state, the Illinois Department of Transportation reports, there were 129 collisions between trains and vehicles throughout Illinois in 2008; 130 in 2007. In the crashes, 15 people died in vehicle-train crashes in 2008, 16 in 2007. Meanwhile 10 pedestrians were killed by trains in 2008 in Illinois; 12 in 2007.

                                                        St. Louis Today