Amtrak Crash Monday Raises Questions About Train Safety

A train crash in Halifax County, North Carolina, March 9, 2015. (Photo: WTVD)

A stretch of North Carolina railroad reopened early Tuesday after it was cleared of equipment damaged when a passenger train smashed into a truck the previous day, federal transportation officials said.

Federal officials also shed further light on the events that led to the crash that injured the conductor and at least 54 passengers. Eyewitnesses saw the truck and trailer occupy the crossing for 15 to 20 minutes, officials said. The state highway patrol, which had at least one trooper accompanying the oversized load, had said it spent about five minutes trying to negotiate the railroad crossing.

State transportation officials said 54 of the injured were taken to hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries after Monday’s crash. They said one had more serious injuries. Details were not immediately available. Among the injured was the train’s conductor, Gordon said.

Federal authorities said they believed 62 people were injured. The discrepancy could not be resolved immediately.

Click HERE to see pics from a passenger aboard the train when it crashed and derailed. 

Kevin Thompson, associate administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said that equipment from the Amtrak train had been moved and the track in the town of Halifax reopened around 2:30 a.m. The owner of the track, CSX, is making repairs to safety equipment at the crossing. Most people who were treated at hospitals have been released.

Monday’s collision was the third serious train crash in less than two months. Crashes in New York and California in February killed a total of seven people and injured 30.

The Federal Railroad Administration, which is leading the crash investigation, is continuing to interview witnesses and review onboard recorders from the train in the North Carolina crash.

The oversized flatbed trailer involved in Monday’s crash was transporting a modular building loaded with electrical equipment – what troopers described as “an electrical distribution center” – from Clayton, North Carolina, to New Jersey, said Lt. Jeff Gordon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.

One of the troopers escorting the truck was trying to help the driver negotiate a difficult left-hand turn across the tracks onto a two-lane highway, Gordon said. But the 164-foot tractor-trailer combination, longer than half a football field, couldn’t navigate it, he said.

Gordon said the truck driver had to reposition his trailer and back up to attempt the turn a second time by making a wider swing through the intersection.

The northbound train originated in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was bound for New York. As it approached, it set off warning flashers and the crossing arms came down as the truck was still straddling the tracks, Gordon said. The train hit shortly afterward, about noon, he said. He said traffic backed up behind the truck prevented it from backing off the tracks.

“I saw him jump out of the truck when he knew he couldn’t beat it. … I heard the train noise and thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s going to happen,'” said eyewitness Leslie Cipriani, who used her cellphone to shoot video of the crash.

The truck driver, identified as John Devin Black of Claremont, was not injured. Authorities identified the train conductor as Keenan Talley of Raleigh. He was among the injured, but his condition wasn’t known.

Gordon said the tractor-trailer is owned by Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro. A statement on the company’s website, later removed, said the company’s thoughts and prayers were with the injured. The company did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Hours after the crash, about a dozen of the train’s 212 passengers began boarding a bus to Richmond, Virginia, where they had the option of getting on another train.

“We’re just thankful that we’re still alive. It could have been really worse. God was really with us,” said Lisa Carson, 50, of Philadelphia.

Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official who teaches railway management at Michigan State University, looked at the crossing on Google Maps and said the curve of the railroad heading toward the intersection would have made it hard for the engineer to see up ahead, or for the truck driver to see down the track. Furthermore, the tracks don’t cross the road at a 90-degree angle.

Amtrak officials said that people with questions about their friends and family aboard this train can call the following number for information: 800-523-9101.

Stay with 8News for continuing coverage of this developing story.

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