Never Again: In Owen’s Honor

Published: May. 9, 2023 at 6:25 PM EDT
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WINAMAC, Ind. (WNDU) - If you’ve traveled south to Indianapolis lately, you’ve probably noticed traffic backups on U.S. 31 in Marshall County. It’s all for a good reason.

Work has started on a new overpass at a dangerous rail crossing near Argos. It’s where a teenager was killed almost five years ago when his school bus was hit by a truck.

Owen Abbott and his Winamac Middle School classmates were on a field trip on that December day in 2018. Their school buses stopped at the rail crossing, as required by law. As the second bus pulled away, a truck slammed into it, and Owen was killed.

But that wasn’t the only accident there.

INDOT says between 2018 to 2022, there were seven crashes at that location involving a vehicle legally required to stop at railroad crossings, such as a school bus or a tanker truck.

From those crashes, there were 38 injuries and one fatality, Owen Abbott. He was a fun-loving middle schooler who would be a graduating senior this year.

Now, a new overpass is going in where Owen lost his life. For the next two years, until it’s done, that area remains incredibly dangerous.

“It’s our main artery between northern Indiana and Indianapolis,” said Indiana State Police Sergeant Ted Bohner. “It’s heavily traveled.”

Heavily traveled and at high speeds. A recipe for disaster.

“I drove this road for years. And after that tragic day, I said we gotta get this fixed,” said Indiana State Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Goshen.

Doriot and other lawmakers worked to get the overpass project moving. It will cost over $28 million with money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.

Sgt. Bohner says for the next two years of construction, drivers will need to be extra careful.

“Traffic on this road going down to one lane creates bottlenecks. And still, you’re going to have those hazardous materials and school buses that are going to be required to stop,” Bohner said.

16 News Now saw the problem firsthand.

Our camera captured a northbound school bus stop at the empty tracks, and the traffic on the highway came to a stop. Moments later, there was a southbound tanker truck that had to do the same thing. Both drivers followed federal laws that required them to stop. While that federal law won’t be changed any time soon, this highway-grade crossing will be.

The overpass groundbreaking was held on April 21, 2023.

Britni and Nick Fritz, Owen’s mother and stepfather, took part in the groundbreaking.

“Just think of all the lives it’s going to save,” Britni said.

It’s been a long journey. Despite her grief, Britni spoke in a state senate hearing just months after the crash, calling for safety changes in memory of Owen.

“It’s sad that that’s what had to happen,” Britni said.

INDOT’s solution: the overpass. Eventually, no one will have to stop at this crossing.

“It’s great. I’m glad it’s finally happening,” Britni said. “And hopefully, it saves more lives.”

The loss of Owen is made easier when Britni is surrounded by Owen’s closest friends. Some of them were in that horrible crash. All of them miss him terribly.

“Every year, I meet those kids on Owen’s birthday and December 5th at the cemetery,” Britni said.

These kids and their classmates sure had a lot to deal with at a young age.

“They were in 8th grade. So, they were 13 years old. And they definitely grew up fast,” Britni said.

They’re now seniors at Winamac High School, but they’ll never forget Owen.

“I grew up playing baseball with Owen,” said Brendan Reed, Owen’s classmate. “I mean, I’ve known Britni and Nick forever. They’re part of our family and it just brought us all together.”

In a few weeks, they’ll graduate. They’re going to honor Owen at the ceremony.

“They’re leaving an open seat for him with a bouquet of flowers on it. And me Brendan and Paul are going to go get the flowers and deliver them to the family to show our love to them as well as memorialize Owen,” said Kaley Bonnell, Owen’s classmate.

There are plenty of good memories of their friend.

“Definitely one of the ones that if something was going down in the hallway, someone was getting yelled at it was probably Owen,” said Brendan as the group laughed.

“He was one of my best friends. We always had a good time together. There wasn’t ever a dull moment,” said Paul Bauman, Owen’s classmate. “He always had something to do or find something to do to make the time go by. Whether it was good or bad. It was always fun.”

The tragedy made this class stronger.

“I think we’ve just come together a lot and we’re more understanding and we check up on each other,” said Krista Despot, Owen’s classmate.

“I think it kinda brought everybody closer together. It’s really unfortunate that that had to happen for it to be this way,” said Lucas Widner, Owen’s classmate.

And it’s made them aware of dangers on the highway.

“(I’m) definitely anxious around semis. Stupid drivers. It’s just scary. You don’t know what anybody is going to do,” Krista said.

The crossing is something they had to get used to driving through.

“I try to avoid it. It’s so hard,” Krista said.

“For the longest time ever, I wouldn’t touch 31. I would take every way around it,” Brendan said.

They’re glad the overpass is going to be built.

“It’s good. It’s good that it’s saving somebody. A bunch of other people’s lives,” Brendan said. “It’s very unfortunate that something like that had to happen to be kind of an eye opener I guess. For something like that to happen it’s kind of sad. We would all love to have Owen here.”

State lawmakers have started the process to get the overpass named in Owen Abbott’s honor. We’ll know by next year if we can officially call it the Owen Abbott Memorial Bridge.

Remember, take caution on U.S. 31 in Marshall County. This project will take two years. We’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Congratulations to the Winamac Community High School Class of 2023. Commencement is June 4.