Local News

DOT installs warning sign at deadly rail crossing

Posted December 11, 2009 5:02 p.m. EST
Updated December 15, 2009 1:56 p.m. EST

— Two days after two boys were killed when a train smashed their mother's SUV, state transportation workers installed warning signs at the rail crossing.

The "Do Not Stop on Tracks" signs carry the same message as older ones at the crossing near the intersection of Ellis Road and Angier Avenue, but state Department of Transportation officials said the new signs are brighter, which could help reinforce the message.

Calvin Brandon, 9, and Hassan Bingham, 6, both of Durham – were thrown from their mother's Ford Explorer Wednesday evening when an Amtrak train bound for Charlotte hit the SUV. Investigators said the boys weren't wearing seat belts.

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

Police said the Explorer was apparently stuck in traffic and was trapped on the tracks when the crossing’s warning arms lowered as the train approached.

A woman who called 911 at the time of the accident told a 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.

Drew Thomas, a DOT crossing safety engineering manager, said officials are trying to determine how to make the crossing safer to prevent future accidents.

"It's our job to try to keep people safe," Thomas said.

The DOT could put markings on the pavement in front of the intersection or work with Norfolk Southern to put sensors on the crossing arms so they wouldn't close if they detected a vehicle on the tracks, he said. He added that it's too early to tell if that would have helped in this case.

No charges have been filed in the case, which remains under investigation, police said.

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

In 2001, Barbara Ann Dickerson, of Creedmoor, was killed 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 DOT has applied for federal economic stimulus money to try to put an overpass or underpass at the intersection. Officials estimate such a change would cost $13.5 million.

Schools mourn brothers' deaths

Calvin and Hassan were students at Spring Valley Elementary School, which plans to plant a tree and install a marker next spring in their memory.

Last year, Calvin attended Maureen Joy Charter School, where teachers remembered him Friday as a second-grader who loved math and studied hard.

"Calvin was a fun-loving kid. He was pleasant," teacher Andrea Howell said.

Deborah Bingham was the kind of parent who called the teacher to ask for take-home work to help her son, Assistant Principal Marlene Barbee said.

"His mother was very, very, very active in his life, and she always had the little one with her when she came to school to volunteer or help out in any way," Barbee said. "I believe that God is going to help her get through this. She was a very strong woman."

As with Spring Valley Elementary, the staff and students at Maureen Joy Charter School are trying to cope with the boys' deaths.

"It's hard to get over it. It's something that I don't think I will ever forget," Howell said.