OTTUMWA — Monday night by the railroad tracks, a police officer, railroad employees and firefighters were shaking their heads while a flatbed tow-truck hoisted the remains of a smashed pickup.
"When are people going to learn not to go around the arms?" asked Assistant Chief Mike Craff of the Ottumwa Fire Department.
Even two hours after the accident, those protective barrier arms were still down, lights flashing, at the railroad crossing on Vine Street, between Hayne and Main streets, and within view of Ottumwa High School. Emergency responders said the incident occurred around 8:30 p.m. Monday.
A small pickup truck went around the arms, which were already down, the driver acknowledged to investigators. A railway employee at the scene said the vehicle was clearly past the arms at the time of the accident. But from what the firefighters were able to put together, the driver wasn't purposely trying to beat a train she saw coming. She saw a stopped train, just sitting on the railroad tracks.
"I can’t talk to that because, at this point, the investigation is ongoing," said Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman with BNSF Railway. "I can tell you the crossing was protected by crossing gates and lights, and those were working. It’s extremely dangerous to go around an activated crossing gate."
The vehicle's driver only saw the parked train and the activated gates. That may have lead the motorist to believe it was that train, at least 50 feet away, causing the arms, lights and bells to activate. But it was not the one she saw that caused the signal to activate. It was another train, doing 30 mph straight for the intersection. It was not visible due to the parked train.
The pickup driver went around the arms and drove straight into the side of a moving train.
"It was an unloaded coal train," said McBeth.
"That train driver was taking it pretty hard," Craff said Tuesday afternoon, "but there was nothing he could do. You saw how long it took to stop, even ... locked up at 30 mph, it didn't stop until at least Union Street."
McBeth said her initial report shows that two occupants were in the pickup, and they suffered minor injuries.
An official at the scene who did not identify the occupants said that none of the injuries appear to be life-threatening. Federal regulation limits the amount of information that can be released about a patient. The pickup truck, with its front end smashed and torn open, was removed after emergency personnel were already on the scene. But they hadn't pulled the truck away from the train. That's just how the truck landed.
"When she hit, the front end hit the train and spun that truck around," Craff said. "The [engineer was so] concerned about them. They were real lucky."
To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter page, go to @couriermark. For more on railroad safety, go to http://oli.org/