WINTERBURN — The flag flew at half mast and two desks sat empty at Winterburn elementary Wednesday as students mourned two schoolgirls killed in a train crash.
“They were two lovely girls,” said school principal Shane Dzivinski. “They were full of life, just really vibrant.”
Sisters Julianne Baxter, 9, and Coral, 7, died on their way to school Tuesday morning after their dad’s pickup collided with a westbound Via Rail passenger train headed from Toronto to Vancouver.
The crash happened as drivers battled whiteout conditions in a May snowstorm.
The girls’ 42-year-old father, John Baxter, was also killed.
John was an active Winterburn parent who often participated in school field trips and fundraisers, Dzivinski said.
“They had a remarkable dad who was very active,” he said. “They’ll sure be missed.”
A team of grief counsellors was on hand Wednesday to help staff and students cope.
Julianne was in Grade 4, while Coral was in Grade 2.
“It seems to be hitting the older ones a little harder,” said Jane Sterling, spokeswoman for Edmonton Public Schools.
Right now, the school is making plans to honour the girls somehow, though parents and staff are still sorting out details.
“We’re certainly looking at some of the options to celebrate their short lives and bring some closure,” Dzivinski said.
Police have not yet determined what caused the crash. Speed, road conditions, the weather and the railway crossing signals are being investigated as possible factors.
Baxter’s wife, Alana, said her husband had just undergone brain surgery and was released from hospital a week ago.
She said the emergency operation was prompted by a sinus infection that seeped into his brain.
“He survived that,” said Alana, who is now left alone to look after their two-year-old son. “Then this happened.”