Nwabuoku is a financial adviser living in Hamilton, he and the family were staying with his brother, David, in his Mississauga apartment so he could attend a conference. Emmanuel won several awards. That same weekend, the family learned that Emmanuel and David’s mother died back in Nigeria.
The brothers dove into planning the funeral while their seven kids, Emmanuel’s three and David’s four, were cooped up in an apartment. On July 26, the seven children went out for some fresh air, ice cream and to play in the nearby park.
Unbeknownst to Emmanuel, the hug he received from his youngest daughter would be the last.
Four-year-old Mitchell, affectionately known as Mimi, was killed that evening after she was hit by a GO train west of Dixie GO Station.
Fifteen minutes after the kids left the apartment, Emmanuel received a call from the eldest cousin, who frantically told him “Mitchell can no longer breathe! Mitchell can no longer breathe!’”
Emmanuel and his wife, Ifunanya, rushed downstairs toward the park, things seemed normal, but they didn’t see the kids. The couple learned that the children had wandered behind the park towards the train tracks. What Emmanuel saw on arrival rattled him to his core.
“I saw my daughter lying on the floor. I got close to her, and I almost fainted. I saw for the first time in my life an open skull; the broken head of my daughter. I lost hope. I felt devastated and broken. I felt like I should just give up and just go with her.”
Ifunanyna picked up Mitchell and was running back and forth before Emmanuel took the body and brought her back to the park while David called emergency responders. Peel police later confirmed Mitchell was pronounced dead at the scene.
The children were chasing a butterfly when Mitchell strayed onto a path that led to the train tracks where she was struck by an oncoming train. Emmanuel says he was in disbelief when his niece brought him through the opening behind the park.
“Why was there a way here?” he questioned. “I was shocked seeing that there’s an opening that leads to high-tension cables and railroad tracks.”
‘Everyone knows about the shortcut’
The community was shocked to learn about Mitchell’s untimely death. However, people say they were less surprised by the way the young girl died. The train tracks are fenced off to prevent people from crossing but residents say gaps in the fence are used as a shortcut to get to Dundas Street.
"Everyone knows about it," Nathan Burgess told CBC.
Burgess lives near the site where Mitchell was killed, he says the well-known shortcut can save people a 5-10 minute walk. There are multiple warning signs next to the tracks and on fences including a red and white sign from Canadian Pacific Rail (CP Rail) which reads “Danger. Private Property. No Trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.” Burgess says these are the only measures to prevent people from crossing the tracks.
Neighbours in the area told reporters on scene that they’ve long expressed concern about the lack of a proper barrier around the train tracks. People in the area at the time of the accident recalled hearing the familiar sounds of a train honking and brakes screeching.
“It’s really scary and it’s not the first time I’ve heard that honk from a train,” a resident named Samantha told CBC. In fact, just weeks after Mitchell was killed - a woman was hit and killed by a CP Railway freight train in a nearby area.
Samantha said she often saw people crossing the tracks through gaps in the fence and using it as a shortcut. Adding that, “it would be best for our community to close that fence and to fix it so that there won’t be any more ways for people to go through it.”
Muhammad Tayyab, who owns a garage nearby, told Global News he’s repeatedly seen the hole in the fence repaired only for it to be broken again a short time later.
“This fence has been repaired multiple times. They repair it, and right after a week or so it’s [broken] again,” Tayabb said. “It’s happened so many times, it was open fully.”
The issues surrounding the barriers have long been a point of contention for Emmanuel. He pointed out that the barrier was more of a fence than a barrier and that the images most people have seen associated with the incident “was another side entirely.”
“The fence or the barrier that was shown, that everybody has in mind based on the story, it's not that route Mitchell took,” he explained.
A day after Mitchell’s death, crews were seen in the surrounding area mending the barrier and adding extra fencing in areas where there were already gaps.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) and CP Rail gathered information after the incident and launched an investigation. The TSB is an independent agency responsible for investigating rail transportation occurrences. The TSB's objective is to advance safety and it doesn’t determine civil or criminal liability. Peel police concluded that the collision was not a criminal matter. When police showed up to his brother’s place to close the case and interview the family, Emmanuel said the police couldn’t complete the interview because of how distraught the children were.
Emmanuel says that TSB representatives spoke to him and his legal advisor in the summer and that he’s reached out to them since then but that he’s yet to hear back from them. Emmanuel said he has questions that are still unanswered and that he wants to see the video of the incident, which the TSB says they have.
"If the camera was truly functional, someone should’ve seen an unusual gathering of kids on the rail track from a distance. How come it was just a few seconds away before the train beeped the horn and tried to brake?” Emmanuel asked.
Mitchell’s death came just weeks after Metrolinx issued a warning in response to an infamous video of 3 kids playing close by railroad tracks and nearly being hit by a GO train in Toronto.
The TSB sent a statement to ByBlacks.com on the investigation into Mitchell’s death. The statement reads in part:
“The TSB sent an investigator to the accident site and thoroughly examined the information gathered there. The circumstances of this tragic accident did not reveal any new information that could be used to make rail transportation safer, so the investigation has been closed. The TSB extends its sincere condolences to all those affected by the loss of this small child. There will be no further TSB follow-up action or activities.”
The investigation into Mitchell’s death was categorized as a Class 5 investigation, in accordance with the TSB policies.
“A class 5 occurrence has little likelihood of identifying new safety lessons that will advance transportation safety. The occurrence may involve fatalities and/or serious injuries. The occurrence attracts limited public interest outside of the immediate area. The investigation is limited to data gathering and the data are recorded for statistical reporting and future analysis.”
Pamela Fuselli, the president and CEO of Parachute, a national charity devoted to injury prevention, admitted the difficulty of fencing the approximately 73,000 kilometres of railway track in this country but says there are solutions that could be implemented to avoid tragedies like this.
In an email to the Toronto Star, Fuselli also said developing a sense of why and how people use the space is crucial when it comes to finding solutions.
“It’s a combination of prevention strategies that stop people from accessing the railway tracks and providing them with safe alternatives,” she wrote.
Emmanuel admits that while it may be impossible to erect barriers around all the train tracks, he says if it’s close to a playground or place where children can access, it’s a “sensible, precautionary measure” to have a barrier in such an area.
Emmanuel also supports the idea of taking disciplinary actions against people caught damaging a mended fence or barrier.
The Butterfly Project and Show
Her uncle says Mitchell carried herself like an adult, while her father described her as “an angel among men” with a peaceful nature.
“Even as a small child, she could identify who was in need and who was in pain. She’s always after people’s happiness, asking things like why are you not laughing, God loves you,” he elaborated.
Mitchell’s death sent waves of sadness throughout the Nwabouku family that reverberate to this day.
“Anytime I remember, I become useless. It’s affected me in every sphere of life; my work, my studies, my thinking. I'm not myself,” Emmanuel admitted.
Despite the emotional toll of the incident, Emmanuel says he’s trying to remain strong for his family who are also suffering.
Emmanuel says that Ifunanya is battling depression while his two kids, (Olivia, 9, and Parise, 8) have seen a dip in their academic performance at school and are struggling to concentrate. Emmanuel added that the kids have been traumatized by their sister’s death, noting that the sound of horns is “always a disaster” for them. But he says he is going to the hospital to see a therapist, and his kids were provided with a therapist at school.
The family decided to honour Mitchell’s memory by celebrating her posthumous birthday on Dec. 10 with an event called the “Butterfly Variety Show.” The project, which aims to be an annual memorial, was formed to raise awareness and call on leaders to better protect children playing in areas that are vulnerable to accidents.
In a call with the grieving parents, Missisuaga’s mayor, Bonnie Crombie admitted that “someone dropped the ball,” but Emmanuel says he’s not looking to point fingers.
“One of the reasons we want to do this event is not to pass the blame, but to please call on whoever it may be because we need to be our brother's keeper,” he said.
The event will take place on the evening of Dec. 10 at Rhema Centre in Toronto, and feature a number of performances with Juno-award winner, Jully Black, as the headliner. For more information on the event, head to gospelconnection.ca.
It’s been a rough couple of months for the family, Ifunanya’s mom died recently, so they’ve been looking forward to this celebration of Mitchell’s life. Emmanuel hopes the event is well attended and that it helps “Ease the trauma we’re going through.”
We’re going through a lot and I just pray that on Dec. 10, maybe seeing the love shown to us by people will help my wife and kids believe that it’s okay. Now, our girl is resting in the bosom of the lord.”