Local News

Brothers ID'd in fatal Durham train crash

Posted December 10, 2009 9:50 a.m. EST
Updated December 15, 2009 1:56 p.m. EST

— Durham police on Thursday identified two brothers who were killed and their mother, who was injured, when an Amtrak passenger train hit their SUV near the intersection of Ellis Road and Angier Avenue early Wednesday evening.

The siblings – Calvin Brandon, 9, and Hassan Bingham, 6, both of Durham – were thrown from their mother's Ford Explorer during the crash and were pronounced dead at the scene, police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said.

Investigators said the children were not wearing seat belts.

Their mother, Deborah Peaks Bingham, was treated at Duke University Hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.

"No charges have been filed at this time, and the accident remains under investigation," Michael said in a statement.

'She was trying to save her children'

The Amtrak passenger train was traveling west at approximately 79 mph when it struck the right-rear quarter panel of the SUV, around 5:19 p.m.

Michael said the Explorer was apparently sitting in traffic and was trapped after the crossing’s warning arms lowered as the train approached.

In a 911 call released Thursday afternoon, a caller told the dispatcher that Bingham was trying to get off the track when the crossing arms were lowered.

"She was trying to cut through, and she tried to back up. She couldn't. She was blocked," the caller said. "She was forced to just stay there, and the train hit her."

Norfolk Southern Railroad spokesman Robin Chapman said vehicles can easily break through the crossing arms when they are down. He said the company tested the gate's activation system and lights and found that they were working properly.

Durham resident Savannah Ford said she heard the conductor "lying down on the whistle" and then "what sounded like a transformer exploding." She said she knew it was an accident right away.

Ford said she would never forget what she heard as she ran toward the crossing.

“What was incredibly sad about it was that I heard the mother screaming, because she was trying to save her children,” she said.

Surveillance video from nearby New York Mini Mart showed the train approaching the intersection before the crash.

Ahmed Naji, who works at the convenience store, said there are often close calls at the crossing.

“People are going by the street and the train has the road closed, so they have no choice but to stop in the middle of the road,” Naji said.

The 129 people on the Amtrak train were not injured.

Brothers' elementary school grieves

Calvin and Hassan were students at Spring Valley Elementary School, which had extra counselors on hand Thursday for students and teachers who were grieving.

"There are no words to describe the loss and sorrow being felt at Spring Valley today," Principal Sylvia Bittle said in a statement.

"(They) were very bright, spirited children who were very well-liked by their classmates. They touched the hearts of their teachers and me. They were hard-working, high-achieving students, and they will be greatly missed. We share in their family’s grief, and our thoughts are with them.”

State wants to alter intersection; 11 crashes reported since 1975

Wednesday's crash marked the 11th at the Ellis Road rail crossing since 1975, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

In 2001, Barbara Ann Dickerson, of Creedmoor, died and Janet Teasley Watson, of Durham, was injured when Teasley drove her car around the railroad crossing gates and onto the tracks where a westbound Amtrak train struck it, according the police.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has applied for stimulus money to try to put either an overpass or underpass at the intersection. Officials estimate it will cost about $13.5 million.

Highway-rail grade crossing safety

The U.S. has approximately 227,000 highway-rail grade crossings – 140,000 are at publicly owned highways and 87,000 are at privately owned roads – according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Of the public grade crossings, about 53 percent are equipped with active warning devices.

"Overall, train-vehicle collisions are the second leading cause of rail-related fatalities in the United States," according to FRA data.

The number of train-vehicle collisions at grade crossings has been reduced by 80 percent from a high of 13,557 incidents in 1978 to 2,746 in 2007 despite significant increases in both highway and train traffic, according to the FRA.

Likewise, the number of people killed as a result of grade crossing collisions has decreased by 70 percent from a high of 1,115 in 1976 to 338 in 2007.

"Flashing lights or lights with gates do improve safety at grade crossings, but they do not prevent all collisions," according to the FRA. "Approximately half of crossing collisions occur where such active warning devices are installed and operating as intended. Nearly one-quarter of all crossing collisions involve the motor vehicle striking the side of a train that is already fully occupying the crossing."