Drivers say safety arms at crash site seemed to malfunction
CROZET, Va. (AP) — The safety arms at a railroad crossing where a train carrying Republican lawmakers slammed into a garbage truck appeared to be malfunctioning the day before the deadly crash, drivers who regularly cross over the tracks at the crash scene said Thursday.
Gene Locke, who lives near the tracks in Crozet, said he pulled up to the crossing between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and saw that the safety arms were down and the signal light was flashing, but no train was approaching from either direction. After waiting a minute or so, he backed up, turned around and took a different route, assuming there was either a malfunction of the signal crossing or workers were testing it.
“I did not report this, as it was the first time this has happened in my observation since I have been using that crossing for several years,” Locke told The Associated Press.
Jane Rogers, who lives about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the crash site, said that when she arrived at the crossing Tuesday, the gate was down, even though there were no trains approaching. She said after waiting, one car in front of her and two cars behind her turned around. Then, as she started to turn around, the gate went up. One car then crossed the tracks, but Rogers said she waited another 30 seconds and the gate went down again. No trains passed, she said.
“It was a weird up-and-down thing,” she said. “Then the next day, the accident happened at that intersection.”
Pete Kotowski, the lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said it was too early to say whether the arms were working at the time of the accident, which killed an employee of the trash company and injured six others.
The train was traveling “about 61” miles per hour (“about 98″ kph) only seconds before it slammed into the truck, Kotowski said. The speed limit at that crossing is 60 mph (97 kph), he said.
Investigators have spoken with four eyewitnesses, interviewed one of the crew members from the train and scheduled an interview with the engineer, Kotowski said. They are “in the process” of trying to interview the driver of the truck, he said.
The trash company, Time Disposal, has been in business for 33 years and has 17 drivers and 15 trucks, Kotowski said.
“The company has been subject to six roadside safety inspections with two of them resulting in vehicles being placed out of service,” Kotowski said.
He also said the company had two reported crashes — one in 2015 and one in 2016 — but gave no further details on those accidents.
Wednesday’s collision happened at an intersection that crosses the tracks at the top of a hill where visibility is limited.
Carrie Brown, human resources manager at Buckingham Branch Railroad, which leases the stretch of track and is responsible for maintenance, said Wednesday that she was unaware of any problems with equipment at the crossing. She declined further comment Thursday and referred all questions to the NTSB.
No safety inspection records for the crossing were immediately available.
The State Corporation Commission, which inspects railroad facilities including track and equipment, does not maintain inspection records but turns them over to the Federal Railroad Administration, SCC spokesman Andy Farmer said.
A spokesman for the FRA said details on inspections would require a public records request.
The lawmakers were on their way to a strategy retreat in West Virginia when the collision occurred around 11:20 a.m. in Crozet, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of Washington. Kotowski said Thursday that hundreds of people were on board.
Time Disposal identified its employee who was killed as Christopher Foley, 28, and said he was the father of a 1-year-old boy. Six other people were injured. One remained in critical condition Thursday and one was in fair condition, according to the University of Virginia Medical Center. Four people had been released.
Benny Layne, on whose property the truck landed, said the crossing arms had been known to malfunction, sometimes coming down even though no train was approaching. Sometimes, he said, they stayed down for hours.
“A guy was up here just yesterday or the day before taking a look at them,” he said Wednesday.
Rogers said she reported the trouble to the police after she heard about the fatal crash. She said she would have called about the malfunctioning arm Tuesday, “but who do you call? No one knows.”
Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie and Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.