Local News

Trains running again in Mebane after crash; road still blocked

Posted May 14, 2010 5:26 a.m. EDT

— Trains were once again moving through downtown Mebane early Friday, less then 24 hours after an Amtrak train slammed into a tractor-trailer, injuring 13 people and leaving massive amounts of wreckage.

The railroad crossing at 5th and E. Center streets was still closed to vehicles, however. At last check, one person was still at UNC Hospitals in serious condition.

Crews replaced more than 400 feet of railroad tracks after Thursday morning's crash involving train No. 73, traveling from Raleigh to Charlotte.

Police said a tractor carrying heavy construction equipment was making a turn when it got stuck on the tracks as around 7:45 a.m. as the train, which had 36 passengers on board, approached.

State troopers said the driver, Barry Charles Lazaro of Wake Forest, backed up but got stuck again. He escaped before impact.

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.

"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 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 got off 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."

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

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.