LAKELAND, Fla. — A couple who romanticized trains and lived a modern-day adventure by riding railroad cars across the U.S. were killed when a train dumped its load of coal at a Florida power plant.
Ever since Christopher Artes was a teenager in suburban Maryland, he had an illegal and dangerous kind of wanderlust — hitching rides on trains. Over the summer, he fell in love with Medeana Hendershot, who shared his passion. They traveled from Georgia to Chicago, then back to Tennessee, with Artes sending his mother pictures along the way. They wanted to spend winter in Florida because it was warm.
"If he had to die so young, at least he died at a moment where he was on top of the world," said Susan Artes, Christopher's mother.
Artes, 25, and Hendershot, 22, were found Sunday in coal by power plant workers. It's not clear exactly when or how they died.
Sometime over the weekend, the train pulled into the city of Lakeland's power plant in Central Florida. As the railcars arrive, the bottom opens and cars drop coal several stories below onto a waiting truck.
Officials were not sure if the couple was sitting on top of the coal or were riding in an empty car and dropped onto a mound of coal, then hit or buried by another load.
Artes died from asphyxiation, meaning he was likely buried alive. Hendershot died from blunt force trauma to the mid-section, so she could have been hurt falling or by coal falling on her.
Artes was adopted when he was 5 days old. Growing up, he had dyslexia and other learning disorders, but he was a sweet boy, his mother said. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder but didn't like taking his medication. He used drugs and drank, but his mother said he had been clean in recent months.
In high school, he embraced the punk rock scene and met some "traveler kids," his mother said. He started to dress in black and had a lot of different hair styles and colors. It was then he began climbing aboard freight trains for short trips, either to get around, or for the experience. This summer, with his girlfriend, he embarked on his longest trip yet, with no set plans other than the adventure. The couple wanted to stay in Florida, then return to Maryland for a visit with his family in the spring.
"I don't recommend it and I encourage people not to do it," said Kevin Rice, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., who writes about his train hopping adventures from 20 years ago on his website.
Rice listed the dangers of riding the rails: falling off the car, getting robbed by a vagrant, being jolted or crushed when the train's slack lessens.
"It was a great deal of fun and adventure but we could have gotten killed," said Rice, now 43. He said he has heard of many different freight-hopping deaths, but nothing like the case of Artes and Hendershot.
Since the invention of the railroad, people have sought travel and wander along the tracks. During the Great Depression, people jumped aboard to look for work or because it was the best way to get to another town. But unlike the Depression, modern-day riders have the advantage of cellphones. Artes called his mom three times a week.
He would sometimes ask her to look up directions on the Internet for truck stops, grocery stores and other places while he was on the road.
Artes' mother said her son had a train-hopping manual, but it was stolen at some point.
She described her son as naÏve and trusting. When he and Hendershot were in Miami several weeks ago, a trucker with whom they had caught a ride with stole Artes' backpack.
"We were always worried about him. He always made so many bad decisions," she said. "If he got an idea and something looked good to him, he would do it. He was always jumping into situations. This particular train was one of them. I'm sure they thought the train would go from one yard to another."
Hendershot's family couldn't be located for comment.
The last time Artes spoke with his mother was last Saturday. He had been up north. He told his mother he was in Georgia on his way to Florida because the weather up north was too cold.
His funeral will likely be next week in Maryland.
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush .
Rice's website: http://freightyard.net .