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A Ghost Story

The Hunted

By Elizabeth Futrell

In the distance, a train whistles faintly.

“Holy shit,” the guy in the hooded sweatshirt murmurs to the others milling about the train tracks near the edge of Bostian Bridge. “It’s coming.”

“The ghost train,” croaks his blonde friend, her shadowy face blue-white in the glow of her iPhone. “Oh my God, this is it. It’s 2:58 am.”

Later, the pair would shake their heads and wonder what they and their companions, who had been strangers when they met at the foot of the narrow bridge earlier that evening as the hazy red moon rose over the creek, were expecting. Had they imagined, like children, that a translucent, 119-year-old locomotive would whoosh through the group with tornado-like force, leaving everyone windblown but unscathed?

It happened fast. As the blonde girl looked up from her phone, the three brothers from Lincolnton, who had ventured 10 or 15 feet out onto the trestle, stood up suddenly. “It’s vibrating, guys, the trestle’s shaking,” one of them shouts. They take off running toward land, and one of them turns around and bellows, “MOVE!” Just before he turns forward and rolls off the track and onto the grassy overlook, he sees it: the approaching glare of a single headlight.

The thick, August blackness masks the horror on the faces of those still standing on the trestle. The four college kids from Boone sprint down the wooden tracks, one after the other. The small fears this group of amateur ghost hunters felt earlier as they ventured out onto the high bridge—of losing their balance and falling 60 feet to the bed of Third Creek below, of encountering ghostly apparitions—are drowned out now by the blinding white terror of approaching death.

A Norfolk Southern freight train, having rounded the bend, is in full view now. It barrels toward Bostian Bridge. It’s later recorded that the train was traveling at 35 miles per hour. The bridge spans 300 feet; it would take just under six seconds for the train to cross the bridge.

Six seconds. It is dizzying how a life can completely change, or vanish altogether, within such a tiny sliver of time. Six seconds. The time it takes to lift a mug of coffee from the table, take a sip, and set it back down.

Chris had visited Bostian Bridge before, but never on the anniversary of the great train wreck of 1891. He had decided this evening, the 119th anniversary of the catastrophe, to venture out to the point near the center of the bridge where the locomotive had reportedly jumped the tracks all those years ago. His girlfriend Anna, who shared his passion for ghost hunting, insisted on going with him. They weren’t sure what they would find, but they sensed this night would be life changing.

That humid summer night in 1891, it is unlikely that the bleary-eyed passengers sensed the horror awaiting them when they boarded the doomed train bound for Asheville. In fact, most of the riders were fast asleep at 3:00 am when the train derailed. A violent shift jolted everyone awake. The body of the train rocked wildly as the engineer tried unsuccessfully to regain control. And for the next six seconds, nothing existed but the screech of twisting metal. The flash of mid-air silence as the train tumbled off the trestle. The horrific chaos as the engine and passenger cars smashed into the rocky bed of Third Creek. Screams of anguish pervaded the air. In six seconds, twenty-two people went from peaceful slumber to eternal rest. Thirty more were severely injured in the wreck, the worst in North Carolina’s history.

Exactly fifty years to the day after the terrible wreck, on a muggy late-summer evening in 1941, a woman waited with her stranded car near Bostian Bridge while her husband walked to the nearest service station for help. She was leaning against the car watching the moonrise when a distant whistle startled her out of her reverie and signaled the approach of a train. The woman wandered closer to the tracks to catch a glimpse. Out of the darkness, a passenger train came hurtling down the tracks, spotlighting her momentarily in the far-reaching glare of its headlight. Her gaze followed the train as it raced toward the bridge, white moonlight bouncing off of its sleek body and dazzling the creek below. She felt like she was looking at a storybook illustration—it was all so perfect. And with a violent clatter and a deafening squeal, all hell broke loose as the train derailed. It was surreal how the locomotive seemed to jump into the air and spiral before taking a tortured leap into the creek below. The nightmare screams of twisting steel and humans in agony sprung the woman forward. She kicked off her high heels and raced toward the bridge, her legs wobbling and her heart pounding with dread. For the rest of her living years, she was unable to forget the site below as she peered over the edge of the ravine. Mangled train cars, severed limbs, smoke rising from the unimaginable wreckage. The survivors were wailing below, and she joined them, crying out for help as she ran back to the car. She stood there shaking violently until, moments later, headlights approached and slowed to a stop. As her husband and the service station attendant exited the car, she ran to them frantically, grabbing them and begging them to follow her to the bridge and help free the trapped passengers. When they reached the bridge, they were met only with silence. The smooth, empty tracks shone in the moonlight, and the creek bubbled softly below. She had seen the ghost train and, and her nightmare vision sparked decades of nocturnal visits to this haunted spot, where it came to be believed that the ghost train passed through once a year on the anniversary of the 1891 wreck.

Though they do not realize it at first, Chris and Anna are doomed from the moment the group hears the train whistle in the distance. They, like the others, feel an initial rush of adrenaline at the thought of actually witnessing the legend they had heard about their whole lives: the Bostian Bridge Ghost Train. But as the train approaches, realizations wash over the couple like brisk, forceful waves. The train is real. It is gaining on them faster than they could ever hope to run. By the time the brothers from Lincolnton and the kids from Boone escape the trestle and collapse on the grass along the tracks at the edge of the ravine, Chris and Anna, who had been sitting on the tracks with their legs dangling over the side, manage to get to their feet and begin the 150-foot sprint to the end of the bridge. Though Chris is a runner, Anna is not, and the unsteady footing of the train tracks slows her progress even further. As they draw closer to the edge, the other ghost hunters yell frantically at them to hurry. The trestle trembles. For the first time, the engineer becomes aware that there are people on the track. He anxiously applies the emergency brake and sounds the whistle, all in vain. Had the pair turned around and looked behind them at that moment, they would have seen absolute horror on the engineer’s face as he was forced to accept what was about to happen. Rather than look back, Chris surges forward.

“I love you!” he cries out. He leaps and, with the force of his entire body, pushes Anna off the bridge. As she begins her surreal descent, the train slams into Chris, catapulting his limp body into the air. For a second, an eternity, they are falling into the forested ravine, his fate sealed and hers uncertain.

The small crowd of ghost hunters can only stand and watch, some shedding silent tears, one sick and doubled over, the others screaming as the freight train screeches past them, unable to bring itself to a stop. As the train finally, painfully, slows and then comes to a standstill, a thick, foggy silence descends.

Anna lies on her back in a tangle of dewy vegetation and tree branches she collected on her fall, gasping for air, eyes wide open. She cannot turn her head, cannot move, cannot even close her eyes. Through the canopy of trees, she eyes the trestle spanning the ravine above her. Though her body can’t move, her insides convulse at the sight of the bridge. Those other people, she hears them calling out, probably looking for her. They don’t even know her name. She tries to yell out in response, and it takes her a moment to realize that, despite the panic pushing screams into her throat, no sound is escaping her lips. She had not seen the train hit Chris, but she had heard the impact. Lying there, she now knows what feels like to survive a 40-foot fall off a bridge. She does not know, though, how she’ll survive the permanent awareness of what has just happened.

Every year, ghost hunters trek to the site of the great train wreck at Bostian Bridge, some hoping for an otherworldly experience, some out of curiosity or skepticism, some seeking a good story to embellish and retell to friends, and some addicted to the adrenaline rush brought on by fear and anticipation of the unknown. Chris spent his abbreviated adult life chasing ghosts, hooked on the thrill of tiptoeing across the bridge between history and the supernatural. Anna was enchanted by this passion and grew to love and desire the quiet, breathless apprehension that accompanied each ghost hunt. These chases were opportunities for Chris and Anna to be silent and tune into those subtle cues of nature which are tuned out thoughtlessly by most people day after day. The chases allowed them to think beyond themselves and the mundane details of daily life and imagine what had been and what could be.

Each chase they embarked upon had been rewarding in its own way, but none had fulfilled their dark longing as did this final chase, in which the ghost hunter became the ghost, and his accomplice, haunted. They are a shiny new link on the weathered chain that binds this ghostly tale to Statesville, North Carolina, home of the unlucky Bostian Bridge. A reporter who covered this recent tragedy for the local newspaper wondered as he concluded his article just how many more ghost hunters would journey to Bostian Bridge next August, lured by the legend’s morbid new chapter. He cautioned these would-be adventurers with a reminder of one of the cardinal rules of ghost hunting: do not trespass. It is not worth the risk. After all, ghost hunters, of all people, should understand that places aren’t haunted. People are.

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