Ray Zukowski always suspected his daughter Kristen Bowen was well-loved: Heíd throw a birthday party for her and her twin, Kendra, and 100 people would show.
His suspicions were confirmed this week as large crowds have gathered nightly for candlelight vigils at the spot in Villa Park where Kristen died Saturday night. He was overwhelmed with emotions at the show of support.
"It was really something to see," Zukowski said, choking back tears. "I just had no idea how many hearts Kristen and Kendra "touched."
Kristen was headed out to see a friend shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday when her trip was cut short. Sheíd walked north on Ahrens Avenue in Lombard and was headed over the railroad tracks to Villa Parkís North Terrace Park on the other side when she was clipped by an eastbound freight train.
Sheíd seen a westbound train but didnít realize a second one was coming from the opposite direction, police said.
Her death is eerily similar to a tragedy that occurred 19 years ago -- nearly to the day-just a few blocks east. Heather Dickhaut was walking along the tracks near Addison Road in early February 1987 when she was clipped by a train.
"It was a snowy day," Villa Park Deputy Police Chief Mark Johnson said of the 1987 incident. "She was looking at one train and not seeing the other."
Zukowski is hoping the tragedy wonít occur again. Heíd like to see something positive come of his daughterís death.
"Every single day Iíve lived here, Iíve worried about losing one of my kids," he said. "Itís just the worst nightmare. Itís just the worst feeling in the world."
Heís always stressed to his children to steer clear of the train tracks. That message was heightened two years ago when Alyssa Gonzalez, a friend of Kristen and Kendra, was killed by a train just east of the Addison Avenue crossing. A coronerís jury ruled Alyssaís death a suicide.
But Zukowski said itís impossible for a parent to force children to walk several blocks to the nearest crossing at Grace Street or Addison Avenue when the park is just across the tracks.
"Itís just terrible. The temptation is too great," Zukowski said. "Kids are going to take the shortest path. They think they can beat it."
Zukowksi is hoping Lombard and Villa Park, whose boundaries align with the tracks at that spot, will pursue a pedestrian crossing.
"Itís just a horrible situation. Itís going to happen again," he said. "The temptation needs to be taken away."
Villa Park Village President Joyce Stupegia is on board. Sheís organizing a task force to look at ways to make the area safer, incliding a pedestrian overpass and safety patrols.
"We have to do something, more than what weíre doing. This cannot happen again," Stupegia said. "At 14 years old, her life was just beginning. It just breaks your heart."
Lombard officials, who are pursuing a pedestrian overpass at Grace Street, havenít considered the idea.
"It might be something worth looking at," said Lombard Trustee Steve Sebby, who represents the area. "Itís a shame any time a person loses a life."
Kristen grew up in Lombard, attending Schafer Elementary and Jefferson Middle schools before entering Willowbrook High School this year.
She was an honors student who was involved in various activities. She was looking forward to playing her second season of softball with her twin sister, Zukowski said.
She had a close-knit group of friends who took many of the same honors classes, Willowbrook Principal Evelyn Ennsmann said.
"They become kind of like a family. They support each other in a lot of ways," she said.
Several students have taken advantage of grief counseling offered at the school, she said.
"There was a large impact on the students when they heard the sad news of her death," Ennsmann said. "She reached out to a lot of students." Zukowski will never forget her smile and positive attitude.
"She was just the happiest go-lucky person--thatís why so many people loved her," he said. "Everybody got along with her."
In addition to her father and her twin, Kristen is survived by her mother, Kathe Bowen, and siblings Ray Jr. and Nicole Zukowski, Will, Marjorie and Amanda McCaleb, Kendra Bowen and Allie Thomas, as well as several other relatives.
Reprinted with permission from the Daily Herald