Tara McAvoy, 18, was walking about a foot away from Union Pacific railroad tracks. She had typed a message to her parents, both of whom are hearing-impaired, letting them know she was walking along the tracks from home to her mother's workplace on Monday.
A few minutes later, McAvoy was struck by the snowplow on the front of a 65-car Union Pacific train, which authorities said extended 16 inches on both sides of the tracks. She died at the scene.
"As the train approached, they sounded the horn and got no response," Austin police Detective David Fugitt said. "They activated the emergency brakes but were unable to stop in time."
Fugitt said he is not sure whether McAvoy would have felt vibrations from the train, which was hauling a fleet of cars from Mexico to St. Louis.
Gene Mirus, an instructor in the deaf studies department at Gallaudet University in Washington, said deaf people often have a false sense of security when walking along train tracks.
"It is easy for deaf people to walk on railroad tracks under the premise that vibrations would warn them of an oncoming train," Mirus wrote the Austin American-Statesman in an e-mail. "Contrary to what most people think, there are no vibrations on railroad tracks."
Based on factors ranging from the type of train to its weight to the kind of rail, a person wouldn't necessarily feel any vibrations from an approaching train, said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which is part of U.S. Department of Transportation and regulates the safety of the nation's railroad operations.
"A train can sneak up on you," he said.
A railroad spokesman said that the accident underscores the danger of walking anywhere near railroad tracks.
"It's not safe to be there," said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis.
Mirus said he is working on a national campaign to educate deaf people about the dangers of walking on railroad tracks.
McAvoy graduated from the Texas School for the Deaf in 2005 and won the state pageant in June. She was scheduled to compete in the national pageant in California this year. She had been a cheerleader, a basketball player and an honor roll student at the school.