January 07, 2010 5:42 AM
The girl who stood in front of the train
By GREG HARDESTY
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Savannah Rose White, 15, was smart, funny and troubled. She'd been treated for mental health problems in recent months. Many friends wish they'd been able to help.
FULLERTON She sat by the train tracks for about 30 minutes, in the shade of a bush.
Savannah Rose White, 15, had been bickering with her little brother. She didn't want to grab a hot dog with him and her father at a Sam's Club.
While planning her daughter's memorial, Bonnie White revisited the site where Savannah White, 15, was killed by a train last week. She had a recent photograph of Savannah with her.
"Dad, I just want time to think," she said.
Savannah was supposed to wait in the car. Instead, she walked a quarter-mile or so to a patch of gravel where the train tracks cross Placentia Avenue, south of Fender.
It was Dec. 29. Savannah sat on a discarded Christmas tree stand.
The curly haired teen had been thrilled to pick out a real Christmas tree this year, after begging her mother for one. She was even more thrilled when she got, on Dec. 25, an iPod Touch.
Suddenly, the railroad crossing arms sliced down. Red lights flashed and bells jangled. A freight train, heading east at 50 mph, blasted its horn.
Savannah stood up, the ground rumbling with the approach of the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe train.
A few days later, Bonnie White, 50, Savannah's mother, rereads a note her daughter wrote on Nov. 24. It starts:
I guess I've realized that even though we only live one life we still have a chance to make the most out of it and even make a difference in the world. I want to make a difference.
Savannah made a difference from the start.
As a toddler, the Fullerton girl was supersmart, strong-willed, gregarious and humorous. She started reading at age 4. She loved art and was a competitive gymnast for six years, starting at age 5.
But as she started school, at about age 6, something inside Savannah seemed to change.
She started obsessively pulling or twisting her reddish hair until it came out – a compulsion known as trichotillomania. And there were other issues.
By age 9, Bonnie says, Savannah was taking medications for erratic moods and behavior.
Although Savannah was well liked by many of her peers, other kids were cruel to her.
"Most people misjudged her because she didn't act like everyone else," says Marissa Viramontes, 15, who met Savannah in elementary school.
"She was always outgoing and an energetic person. Savannah refused to be someone that she wasn't….
But, Marissa adds, her friend struggled.
"She was emotionally bullied throughout her life.
"Some of her friends turned away from her just to be accepted by others."
Bonnie divorced Savannah's father, Donald White, 57, more than five years ago. Since then, Savannah and her brother, 12, mostly lived with their mother but they saw Donald regularly.
Last spring, during Savannah's freshman year at Troy High School, Bonnie says her daughter complained about being verbally bullied by a member of the color guard.
Over the summer, Savannah was hospitalized four times for psychiatric treatment after behaving erratically, spending seven to 10 days in the hospital each time, her mother says.
When school started in the fall, the school district placed her in a special education class at a continuation school. Bonnie, who fought the transfer, says the change further depressed Savannah.
Two months ago, a psychiatrist took Savannah off all psychotropic medications except the antidepressant Prozac. Bonnie still expresses frustration with that decision, and questions mental health treatment in general.
"We don't adequately deal in America with mental illness, and we're going to pay the price.
"We already are paying the price."
Despite her challenges, Savannah enjoyed periods of happiness.
A few months ago, Bonnie got Savannah and her brother passes to Disneyland. Savannah also talked recently about becoming a marine biologist or a high-school science teacher.
In September, she reconnected with her church, the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, and became active in high school ministry.
"These last four months have been the closest I've ever been to her," Bonnie says.
At about 1 p.m., four days after Christmas, Savannah stood up from her spot under the bush.
She crossed one track and was standing on the second track when the train struck her. The impact hurled her 5-feet-1-inch body 100 feet, from the city limits of Fullerton to Placentia.
According to Fullerton police, and according to her mother, Savannah did not die accidentally. She wasn't, they insist, trying to cross the train tracks to rejoin her father and brother in the nearby car.
"It was an act of opportunity," Bonnie says.
"Savannah has been 'white-knuckling' it most of her life. She was hurting so bad that she stood in front of a train and faced it head on.
"I think she saw the train as a metaphor for life. She wanted to go very, very badly."
Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, of the Fullerton PD, said: "By all accounts, it appears to have been a purposeful action."
Donald White could not be reached for comment.
Bonnie doesn't believe her ex-husband had any clue that his daughter would kill herself.
"I don't think there's any way he could have seen that coming," Bonnie says.
"Not many people can stand in front of a moving freight train."
On a Facebook site in Savannah's memory, and also at a candlelight vigil on Saturday, several of her friends expressed guilt, wishing they had spent more time with her or treated the blue-eyed girl more kindly.
"We both made simple mistakes – every elementary kid makes them," one friend wrote on Facebook. "I just wish I could've been more mature."
A poster near the train tracks where Savannah died includes this: "…I wish I could have talked to you one last time."
Marissa believes her friend now has the love and respect that she craved.
"I bet right now that she is crying because for the first time, she sees the love that we had for her," Marissa said at the vigil.
Bonnie says she's been grieving since summer – sensing she was losing a battle with the emotional demons that gripped her daughter.
"I was trying to anchor her and hold her to life."
She continues reading Savannah's note:
< em>Even if I only touch the lives of a few people, it'll still be a difference. You never know, maybe a person I will help will live on after me, making an even bigger difference.
It could cause a chain reaction.