Local News

Fatal Train-Truck Accident Raises Concerns About Crossings Without Gates

Posted June 17, 1998

— A Virginia truck driver died at Duke University Medical Center after a collision Thursday with an Amtrak train at a crossing where safety gates had been approved, but not installed.

Witnesses told WRAL's Mark Roberts that the driver was found in the middle of the train tracks about 60 yards from the site of the crash. Driver John Allen Wilkerson, 39, of South Boston, Va. was declared dead at 11:49 a.m. shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Duke Medical Center also reported that eight children on the train were treated for minor complaints and released. The children, 7 to 14 years old, were on a field trip from Winston-Salem to Raleigh. Two adult passengers also were treated.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari in Chicago said the Carolinian - with six cars, a locomotive and about 150 passengers - had set out from Charlotte Thursday morning for New York.

A flatbed truck driven by Wilkerson was hit as it tried to cross the tracks along Pettigrew Street at Plum Street in downtown Durham. Witnesses say the train was running at full speed when it hit the truck, but Amtrak officials said the train had not reached full speed -- 59 mph for that stretch of track -- because it had just pulled out of the Durham train station two miles away.

One witness described the collision and what happened to the truck.

"It just demolished it," witness Michael Purdie said. "It just pushed it down the track, and then the trailer came swinging around and the tractor was going the other way."

The truck's cab and trailer were separated by the impact of the crash. Sparks from the braking train touched off a few small fires, and caused a variety of reactions from the passengers.

"I was asleep," passenger Jim Anderson said. "We hit something and I looked up and the tracks were on fire. We didn't really know what was going on."

"It felt like a hard jerk," passenger Kerion Stover said. "Then we saw fire on the side, and I know I saw what looked like half of a bus tumbling."

As crews worked to clean up the tracks, a Durham City Council member said she is outraged because she has been fighting to put gates on all crossings. The crossing where Thursday's accident occurred has warning lights and bells, but no gates. The Department of Transportation had approved placing gates at the crossing, but they had not been installed.

"I certainly would like those gates to go in all the way through town at every unprotected crossing, which is what we expected, what we were requesting, and what we haven't gotten," council member Virginia Engelhard said.

The American Red Cross opened a holding shelter at Eastway Elementary School for the passengers. The Red Cross chapter provided refreshments and assisted them with contacting their families.

Amtrak provided a charter bus to carry the passengers to Raleigh, where they boarded another Amtrak train. The accident did not delay other train traffic using the rail corridor.

Spokesman Magliari said that an "event recorder" in the locomotive will be examined to find out what happened. The device records train speed and information such as when the brakes are applied and the horn activated.

"We routinely download that and take a look at it," Magliari said.

Thursday's collision was the 42nd this year in North Carolina between a train and motor vehicle. Eighteen people have died in those crashes. The number of collisions and deaths has been declining since 1992. The last crash at the Plum Street crossing was in 1985.

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