The driver of a supersize tractor-trailer and his state trooper escort had somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes to alert CSX railroad dispatchers who might have stopped an Amtrak train that derailed Monday after it struck the truck at a Halifax County railroad crossing.
Instead of calling the emergency phone number stamped on a bright blue sign at the crossing, they focused on an attempt to squeeze the big truck through a tight turn at a nearby intersection.
“There was no indication a train was coming,” Lt. Jeff Gordon, a Highway Patrol spokesman, said Tuesday. “The trooper was out of the car. He was actually trying to get the tractor to back up so he could attempt a second left turn.”
The truck was 164 feet long – so big that its trailer straddled the track while the cab blocked traffic in the intersection of U.S. 301 and N.C. 903, 80 feet from the tracks.
The Amtrak Carolinian, carrying 212 passengers and eight crew members, was traveling north at 69 mph when it came out of a nearby curve, said Paul Worley, the state Department of Transportation rail director.
The engineer braked but could not avoid a crash that knocked the locomotive and baggage car off the tracks, causing mostly minor injuries to 62 people on the train. Trooper Christopher Baker, truck driver John Devin Black and the drivers of two other escort vehicles were not hurt.
Witnesses: 15-20 minutes
Worley and the Federal Railroad Administration cited witnesses who said the huge tractor-trailer blocked the track for 15 to 20 minutes before the crash. Gordon said it was no more than five minutes.
The truck, operated by Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro, was hauling a power equipment center manufactured by the PCX Corp. in Clayton. PCX’s CEO Mark DiLillo said the company was shipping the modular center, which housed industrial electrical equipment, to New Jersey.
Turner paid DOT $417 for a permit to make the trip with a vehicle longer, taller, wider and heavier than standard tractor-trailers. The permit required Turner to travel with at least one trooper in front – Baker had picked up the truck a few miles away, as it left Interstate 95 – and two escort vehicles behind.
Kevin Lacy, DOT’s chief traffic engineer, said Turner was responsible for checking out the route and making the trip safely.
“In this case, this company had familiarity with the route because they have been issued other permits for the same route with similar loads,” Lacy said by email.
The truck driver attempted a sharp left turn, from N.C. 903 onto northbound U.S. 301, but could not make the maneuver without running off the pavement and hitting some utility lines, Worley said. The driver was backing up and preparing to try a wider turn when the crossing lights flashed and the safety gates came down on the trailer, about 20 seconds before the train crash at 12:19 p.m. Monday.
“Oh my god, an Amtrak just hit an 18-wheeler,” a nearby resident said in her 911 call to the Halifax County sheriff. “They were trying to get a truck across the track because it’s one that can’t make a hard turn, and it was stuck and it couldn’t move.”
Another caller said: “We were sitting right there when it happened, and there was an officer standing there.”
Permit holder responsible
A few dozen passengers were treated and released Monday evening from a Roanoke Rapids hospital. There were reports of one person transferred to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville with more serious injuries, but a Vidant nursing manager declined to provide information.
State and federal trucking regulations require drivers to call railroad emergency dispatch numbers whenever their trucks are stuck on or near railroad tracks.
“First of all, it is a good practice, and transporters should call the toll-free number on a railroad crossing,” said Kevin F. Thompson, associate administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Spokespersons for Amtrak and CSX refused to say whether anyone ever made the call Monday. A spokeswoman for Turner, the trucking company, declined to comment.
Gordon said it was not Trooper Baker’s responsibility to warn CSX dispatchers that the truck was in the way.
“The permit holder is responsible for checking the route,” Gordon said. “The one purpose of the patrol member is to basically make sure that unit is being correctly moved from point A to point B. ... Our trooper did not make the wrong decision.”
The Carolinian, bound for New York with passengers from Charlotte, Raleigh and other North Carolina stops, was one of 36 freight and passenger trains that travel the CSX “A” line through Halifax County, about 83 miles northeast of Raleigh, on an average day.
Monday’s crash marked the third time this year in the United States in which a train carrying passengers struck a vehicle and derailed. Though investigators will ultimately determine the cause in each case, the incidents highlight the need for better driver education and training on railroad-crossing safety, said David Robinson, acting state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit volunteer rail-safety organization.
“This can be used as an example to make the education effort even better in the future,” he said.
Reporters Thomasi McDonald in Raleigh, Nash Dunn in Clayton and Curtis Tate in the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed.
Rules for escort vehicles
If you do get stuck on the tracks, follow these emergency safety steps:
1. If the truck gets stuck on or stalls within 15 feet of the tracks, get out and get help immediately.
2. Quickly find the nearest phone. Call for help. If you can identify the track operator, call their 800 number first. ...
CSX Emergency Number: 1-800-232-0144
If a train is coming, get out of the truck and run away from the track toward the direction from which the train is coming. This will help you to avoid flying glass and debris, which is extremely hazardous in the event of a collision.
Source: NCDOT Escort Vehicle Operator Handbook