By Tim Eberly and Charles McCarthy, The Fresno Bee, Calif.
Jun. 15–MADERA — Three railroad crewmen leapt from a freight train just before it slammed into another train around dawn Wednesday, shutting down one of the state’s main rail lines while workers untangled the wreckage and repaired the tracks.
Five railroad workers were injured. The three who jumped to safety suffered lesser injuries than the others, according to the Madera County Sheriff’s Department. All are expected to survive.
The near head-on collision on the rural stretch of track crushed the front locomotives of the BNSF Railway trains into twisted metal heaps. One pulled about 25 gondola cars filled with cement; the other towed a variety of boxcars and tankers that stretched for about half a mile.
The stench of diesel fuel wafted through the air as nearby residents, jolted from their morning routines, emerged from their homes to see the destruction.
“My wife and I, we just heard a loud boom,” said Miguel Friaz, 53, who lives a half-mile away. “It wasn’t like a car accident, with squealing tires. It was more like crackling, crumbling — metal on metal. And, all of a sudden, nothing. Silence.”
Firefighters pried one of the railway employees from inside the crumpled cab of one of the locomotives, according to the California Department of Forestry. It’s not clear whether that person had the most serious injuries, though. All the victims were taken to University Medical Center in Fresno.
BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said the three who jumped were released from the hospital; the other two were in serious condition. Their names were not made public.
Some flames erupted, too, causing early concern about a potential disaster if flammable liquids were spilled. But none were, and firefighters confined the fire mostly to the wooden railroad ties beneath the wreckage.
Homeland Security officials phoned Madera County sheriff’s spokeswoman Erica Smith at the crash site, wanting to know about any suspicious circumstances.
But, Smith assured, “This was not an attack.”
The BNSF did not reveal a reason for the crash nor say how fast the trains were traveling on the tracks that it owns when they hit Wednesday.
Most train collisions, however, typically happen because of railroad equipment failure or fatigue among crew members, said Tim Smith, state chairman of the legislative board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in Auburn.
Train movement is controlled by a dispatcher who can talk to the locomotives’ engineers via radio. But in most cases, engineers are guided by railroad signals along the tracks that tell them when to slow or stop.
Kent’s details of the wreck were scant: A northbound train was heading from San Bernardino to Polk, near Sacramento, while the southbound was going from Richmond to Barstow. The northbound train had just begun turning onto a side track parallel to the main track when the southbound train plowed into the side of its lead locomotive.
The sound of the collision shot across surrounding fields.
Standing in front of his bathroom mirror, Friaz put down his toothbrush, fetched his videocamera and drove to the tracks.
“We’ve lived here for three years now, and we’ve never heard that sound,” Friaz said. “We knew that something was wrong.”
He arrived at the Road 26 crossing, northeast of Madera, and saw the long row of locomotives, some of them smashed together like the folds of an accordion.
“A big mountain of cars,” he said.
Another man, Ruben Cardenas, had been watching one of the trains, hauling cement, pass by his kitchen window while he made lunch.
He suddenly heard screeching brakes, howling whistles and the booming sound of the violent impact shortly before 6 a.m. White smoke billowed, then black smoke, followed by flames, he said.
As Friaz filmed, he said he did not see any of the five railway workers who were injured, only curious onlookers like himself.
“Everybody was just kind of watching, just looking at this pile of rubble.”
The rail line is expected to be clear by 3 a.m. today, Kent said.
Amtrak officials hustled to create a backup plan for travelers who bought tickets on trains that usually knife through the Central Valley.
The customers were eventually bused between Fresno and Merced while crews worked to clear the wreckage.
Friaz’s sister, Lupe Friaz of San Jose, was one of them. She had come to Fresno to visit a niece who just had a baby and was going home Wednesday.
She waited at the Amtrak depot in downtown Fresno for a 3:30 p.m. bus to take her to Stockton — a poor substitute for the regularly scheduled train ride, she said.
“I’m hoping there’s not going to be more delays and chaos,” Friaz said.
David Harris of Fresno waited at his car for his mother and sister, who returned Wednesday from an Alaskan cruise. They caught one of the buses from Merced and arrived in Fresno only 20 minutes off schedule.
“Because it was just from Merced, it was OK,” said Harris’ sister, Dina Harris, a middle school teacher in Fresno. “We’re real easy people. It wasn’t any real inconvenience.”
Businesses that rely on the railway for supplies also were slowed, but Union Pacific officials said they were working with BNSF on Wednesday to move some of its train traffic onto Union Pacific’s rail line to the east.
“We try and help each other out the best we can during these times of service interruption,” said Mark Davis, spokesman for Union Pacific in Omaha.
Dale Mendoza, owner of Quali-T-Ruck Service in Fresno, said the closed railway would “back us up about 36 to 48 hours.”
Mendoza depends on freight trains for deliveries of building supplies such as plywood and sheetrock. His product is shipped from Canada to Fresno, where Mendoza unloads it and delivers it by truck to local builders. He and some of his employees were idle as they waited for the tracks to be cleared.
“The problem is that everyone is already so far behind. They don’t have any excess supplies. They need the stuff now,” Mendoza said.
Staff writers Pablo Lopez and Jeff St. John contributed to this report. The reporters can be reached at [email protected], [email protected] or (559) 441-6330. Eyewitness Ruben Cardenas and his wife, Ruby, live in Madera. Ruben Cardenas was fixing his lunch at the kitchen window before going to work when he heard the screeching of train brakes. Five people were injured in the crash; all are expected to survive.
Eyewitness Ruben Cardenas and his wife, Ruby, live in Madera. Ruben Cardenas was fixing his lunch at the kitchen window before going to work when he heard the screeching of train brakes. Five people were injured in the crash; all are expected to survive.
Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee
Copyright (c) 2006, The Fresno Bee, Calif.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.
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