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PORTAGE — Caleb Wilson loved trains and his little sister, Ellie, loved her brother.

"Caleb is a train person. Caleb loves trains and, of course, little Ellie follows Caleb everywhere," said the sibling's step-grandmother Denise Benson as she and other family members and friends gathered at the base of the hill leading to the CSX tracks just south of Portage's Woodland Village Mobile Home Park.

Caleb, 3, and Ellie, 2, were struck by an eastbound freight train about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Caleb was pronounced dead at the scene, and Ellie was airlifted to University of Chicago Medicine Comer's Children's Hospital in Chicago in critical condition.

The children's aunt Destiny Lewis told The Times early Tuesday evening that Elle was awake and talking. 

They are the children of Kelsey Benson and Jacob Wilson.

"I just want to know how this happened," said Kathy Vieitez, another grandmother of the siblings.

Police are continuing to investigate, but Police Chief Troy Williams said family members believed the two sneaked out of the home through a screen door without the adults' knowledge. The adults were actively searching for the toddlers when the collision occurred.

Williams said officer Laura Lightfoot was first on the scene. Caleb was found deceased while Ellie was found crying and with noticeable injuries.

The mobile home park is just south of U.S. 20, west of Ind. 249. It backs up to the CSX tracks. The only separation between the park is a steep, weed-filled embankment. The family lived about four mobile homes from the tracks.

Robert Gowens was staying with his son at the park when he stepped outside to have a cigarette.

"I was standing out there this morning, and I heard the train blow its horn. The conductor was waving his arms," said Gowens, adding he didn't see the children because of the high weeds that cover the embankment.

"It just makes you want to hold your kids tighter," he said.

Williams said the train's conductor saw the children walking on the tracks, blew the horn and attempted to stop — but couldn't stop in time.

Sierra Gonzalez, an aunt of the children, lives across the street.

"Everyday they would come out and say 'hi' to me," Gonzalez said. 

"They were the sweetest things. They were full of joy," said Lewis, recalling how she took Ellie to the Portage Fourth of July parade and helped her get candy.

A forensic autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday on Caleb, according to the Porter County Coroner's office. 

Portage police, Indiana State Police, Porter County Coroner's office, Portage Fire Department, Burns Harbor Police, Ogden Dunes Police and CSX Railroad Police were involved in the investigation. 

The accident also blocked several CSX crossings in Portage for several hours as the investigation continued.

A spokesperson from CSX Railroad said the train involved in the incident was owned by Norfolk Southern Railroad, traveling the CSX tracks on a temporary operating agreement.

"A CSX train crew was operating a Norfolk Southern train on CSX tracks under a special operating agreement between the two railroads. Because it was a Norfolk Southern train, NS is assisting local law enforcement in their investigation. Any questions about the investigation should be directed to law enforcement officials in Portage," said Jonathan Glass, public relations manager for Norfolk Southern Corporation. 

"Norfolk Southern extends its condolences to the family, friends and everyone else affected by this tragic incident."

Police Chief Williams lauded the teamwork of emergency responders in the tragedy.

"I do want to emphasize the exceptional teamwork by the police and fire personnel on scene who worked to stabilize the 2-year-old, move her to the ambulance and then onto the UCAN Helicopter. This tragedy undeniably affected the first responders as several were visibly shaken by what occurred but worked through those emotions to provide every possible resource and effort throughout the entire incident," Williams said.

The Police Department also announced it had canceled its National Night Out event scheduled for Founders Square Park Tuesday evening because of the incident.

Check back at nwi.com for updates to this story.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.