Local News

Train, tractor-trailer wreck injures 13, disrupts Amtrak service

Posted May 13, 2010 8:19 a.m. EDT
Updated May 14, 2010 5:28 a.m. EDT

— A collision between an Amtrak train and tractor-trailer in Mebane Thursday morning injured 13 people and disrupted train service from Charlotte to New York.

Twelve train passengers and one crew member from train No. 73 from Raleigh to Charlotte were transported to hospitals, Amtrak officials said. None of the injuries were life-threatening and most patients were treated and released Thursday afternoon. One patient was in serious condition at UNC Hospitals, officials said.

The tracks at 5th and E. Center street in Mebane were reopened late Thursday.

Amtrak officials said Thursday's disruptions affected the Piedmont service on trains 73 and 76 between Raleigh and Charlotte and the Carolinian service on trains 79 and 80 between New York and Charlotte. Passengers were being put on alternate transportation between Rocky Mount and Greensboro.

Normal service is expected to resume Friday morning.

Relatives of those involved in the derailment and Amtrak passengers can call 1-800-USA-RAIL for more information.

Police said that a tractor carrying heavy construction equipment was making a turn when it got stuck on the tracks as around 7:45 a.m. as train no. 73, which had 36 passengers on board, approached. State troopers said the driver backed up but got stuck again.

"The arms started coming down, and I just started praying, 'God, please. Move, truck,'" said driver Dawn Clapp who was behind the tractor-trailer.

The train struck the tractor at 70 mph and pushed it for 150 feet, state Department of Transportation officials said. "The backhoe got torn open like a beer can being split open," passenger Rocky Williamson said.

The fuel tanks on the locomotive ruptured, igniting a fire that spread to three coach cars.

 "It sounded like a big boom, big explosion. You could see bolts and stuff coming off the train and onto people's cars," witness Kent Cates said.

"The engine of the train was a ball of fire, just burst into flames," witness Bob Farrar said. "My biggest concern was the people in the train. I just knew they were toast."

"You felt it. You were thrown into the air, crashing into the seat," train passenger Rocky Williamson said.

Passenger Tama Eller recalled that "the smoke and the fire just came all down the windows" as passengers and crew were evacuated from the train.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, look at that fire.' Smoke was billowing up in a big mushroom cloud," Williamson said. "Everybody was hurt. People were crying, panicking."

The tractor driver, Barry Charles Lazaro, of Wake Forest, escaped before impact.

After being treated for their injuries, passengers were loaded on buses to different points in Charlotte and Raleigh.

Lazaro said the truck, called a low boy, had an equipment problem, police said. The truck is registered to Lazaro Contracting Inc., which has the same address as Lazaro's residence.

There was no word on any charges.

Heavy equipment was called in to remove the train, and hazmat crews also cleaned up about 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel that had leaked from the train onto the tracks.

Crews with the state Department of Natural Resources were on site Thursday and plan to be there for several days testing the contaminated soil as a result of the diesel spill, said Dave Leonard of the Alamance County EMS

The 5th Street crossing in downtown Mebane has seen six previous train accidents since 1975, most recently on Feb. 24 when a minivan driver drove around the crossing's warning gates and stalled on the tracks.

The only fatal accident at the crossing was recorded in 2005, when 77-year-old Melba Satterfield died when an Amtrak train struck her car. The accident report showed Satterfield stopped on the crossing. Investigators noted that all of the crossing's safety equipment was in working order.

After a 1987 crash, the DOT installed more warning signs at the intersection. The crossing has four gates that are activated by passing trains at least 20 seconds before the train comes through.