Nobody has to tell Tara Stickel she bears some of the fault for the death of her 14-year-old daughter two weeks ago on the Amtrak tracks that cut through the heart of Middle River. She tells herself that often enough.
"I take responsibility. She was my daughter. Maybe I didn't teach her enough," she said last Friday as we sat down to talk at a diner just a few miles from where Anna Marie Stickel died Jan. 5.
FOR THE RECORD - An article on Page 3A of Monday's editions gave an incorrect telephone number for Dick Ratcliffe, Maryland state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver. The number is 410-414-7315.
The Sun regrets the error.
Calm and dignified even in the face of her grief, Anna's 38-year-old mom doesn't absolve her daughter either. She knows Anna did something wrong when she walked along the busiest railroad tracks in the Northeast Corridor listening to her iPod. If she could talk to her daughter now, she'd tell her that wasn't a smart thing to do.
"I'm not making excuses for her," Stickel said. "That baby girl had no idea about what she was doing. She had no clue how much danger she was in because we don't live around there."
Still, it's been a painful education for Tara Stickel how many adults can't seem to distinguish between a 14-year-old making a single dumb mistake and a 14-year-old who is laughably stupid. Anna's mom has seen many comments similar to the ones that came in response to The Baltimore Sun's coverage of the tragedy - the pronouncements about "personal responsibility," the suggestions that Anna had it coming, the remarks that her death would improve the gene pool.
"People can be very brutal and insensitive," Stickel said. "It hurts because obviously she paid for her mistake and I'm paying for mine."
Stickel may be coming down harder on herself than is justified. She lives in a neighborhood 2 1/2 miles from the tracks - far enough away that she didn't see them as a threat. She was aware the tracks were there but didn't know how busy the corridor was or how fast and quietly the trains move.
"I never thought it was something that would put her in danger," she said.
Stickel is fighting back the pain now, and trying to protect other young people, by throwing herself into a cause she calls "Anna's Bridge." She would like to see a footbridge built over the railroad right-of-way about midway in the 2-mile stretch of track that divides Kenwood High School, where Anna was a freshman, from several of the neighborhoods it serves. She's done some research and found that a similar pedestrian bridge was built about nine years ago over a railroad corridor in East Point, Ga., for about $2 million - a relative pittance for a transportation project.
To promote her cause, Stickel has approached the office of Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who has put his staff to work on the proposal.
The congressman noted that such a project poses serious challenges cutting across many levels of government. "There are logistical problems, there are engineering problems," he said. "Most important, we don't control the land."
Nevertheless, Ruppersberger said, "we're trying to work through this and we're taking it seriously."
Stickel said she's under no illusion that a bridge would be a magic bullet. Her hope is that the bridge, combined with better fencing by Amtrak and stepped-up school programs, would improve safety.
"All three of those things combined would be a way to keep kids off the tracks," she said.
Her call for more education is echoed by Dick Ratcliffe, Maryland state coordinator of Operation Lifesaver - a group set up to spread the word about the dangers of intruding on railroad tracks. He contends that kids should be taught about those hazards from an early age.
Ratcliffe said that in the six years he's been in his post he had never been invited to speak at Kenwood until after Anna's death - even though the school sits two blocks away from the tracks and many of its students live in the neighborhoods directly across from there. He said he has since been invited to speak at a program there in late March. (Educators whose schools are near tracks and who want to protect their students can call Ratcliffe at 410-414-3315.)
Ratcliffe said it's unrealistic to expect parents to do the educating. Few, he said, have any idea how fast modern trains are or how quietly they can approach.
"The parents can't teach something the adults don't know, and most adults don't know this stuff," he said.
Stickel said she sees what happened to Anna as a shared responsibility - she doesn't use the word blame - of Amtrak, the schools, parents and local government.
"We all failed her - myself included," she said.
But for now, Stickel is channeling her energies into looking forward.
"Anna's Bridge gives me purpose," she said. "Anna's Bridge keeps me busy, in a sense, fighting for her."