HALIFAX, N.C. (AP) — As workers finished clearing debris from where an Amtrak passenger train derailed earlier this week, state and federal investigators were busy piecing together how an oversized tractor-trailer came to be stopped on the tracks in North Carolina and why there was apparently no warning given to the train’s engineer.
Among the evidence will be the locomotive’s “black box” recovered at the scene and the special state permit that allowed the trucking company to exceed length and weight limits as it hauled an electrical distribution facility headed to New Jersey.
The 127-ton tractor-trailer was about three times the size and weight of a standard 18-wheeler, so huge it required a Highway Patrol escort, and so tall that it had to take back roads to avoid some Interstate overpasses.
Authorities say the truck driver involved in Monday’s crash, which left 55 people injured, was struggling to negotiate a tight left-hand turn across the tracks from one two-lane highway to another while carrying its enormous load when the passenger train came roaring around a curve in the tiny community of Halifax.
No charges have yet been filed against the driver, though law enforcement officials said Tuesday that was still under consideration.
The route taken by the truck was approved in advance by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, including the fateful turn at the railroad crossing.
According to the permit, the big rig was 164 feet long, with 13 axles to support the combined weight of 255,000 pounds. A standard 18-wheeler has five axles and tops out at 80,000 pounds.
An eyewitness said the driver was moving back and forth over the tracks trying to make the turn for about eight minutes before impact.
Between 30 and 35 passenger and freight trains use this stretch of CSX railroad daily, but no officials provided any indication that CSX or Amtrak was warned of the driver’s difficulties at the crossing.
“That’s all going to be part of the investigation,” CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay said.
On Tuesday, about a dozen workers were at the scene attaching harnesses to clear the wreckage of the modular building the truck was pulling.
Several people in bright yellow CSX vests declined to comment and referred a reporter to the corporate office.
Amber Keeter, 19, stuck in traffic Monday with her baby directly behind the tractor-trailer, told The Associated Press that the crew spent a long time preparing to cross the tracks at the intersection of highways U.S. 301 and N.C. 903 in Halifax County, North Carolina, only to get stuck because of the load’s length.
She said she rolled down her window and asked a flag man if he could alert the railroad, but “he said he didn’t think so.”
Then, “the railroad lights started blinking, and so the tractor-trailer driver tried to gun it forward,” she said. The driver jumped out “just a couple of seconds before” the crash.
Well-established protocols require truck drivers and their trooper escorts to “clear their routes and inform the railroad dispatchers what they’re doing,” said Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official who teaches railway management at Michigan State University. And even if they lose contact, a toll-free emergency number is prominently displayed at each crossing.
“That dispatcher would have immediately put up a red signal for Amtrak and radioed Amtrak to stop,” Ditmeyer said.
In this case, the train engineer “didn’t know about the truck until he was coming around a curve. He had no long vision,” Ditmeyer said.
Alerting the railroad wasn’t the responsibility of the trooper, who had only 25 seconds or so to react after the approaching New York-bound train set off warning lights and the crossing arms came down, North Carolina Highway Patrol Spokesman Lt. Jeff Gordon said.
The train’s conductor, Keenan Talley of Raleigh, was among the injured.
The truck driver, John Devin Black of Claremont, escaped without injury. The AP was unable to reach Black on Tuesday. His listed phone numbers rang as disconnected. The rig owner and permit-holder, Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Most of the passengers treated at hospitals were released by Tuesday.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s database shows at least five previous crashes at the same Halifax crossing, all involving vehicles on the tracks. The most recent was in 2005, when a freight train hit a truck’s “utility trailer.” In 1977, an Amtrak train hit a car at 70 mph. The driver got out in time, but a railroad employee was injured, that accident report said.
Monday’s crash 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.
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