(Hot Spring County, Arkansas – March 6, 2016)
A 7-year-old boy was killed and four others seriously injured Sunday afternoon at about 1:00 P.M. when their 2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer SUV being driven by 29-year-old Sara Morris of Hot Springs, AR, was struck by a northbound train at the dangerous, non-gated crossing of a rural Hot Spring County road and Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The crossing which goes by numerous names, but is officially listed on Federal Railroad Administration crossing inventory files as Wine Dot Road.
So chaotic was the scene that drew dozens of witnesses to the tragedy that only the driver, who was among the three occupants airlifted to UAMS Arkansas Children’s’ Hospital in Little Rock, was identified by name in Arkansas Highway Patrol accident reports. Two of the three young surviving children were taken by ground ambulance to Baptist Hospital in nearby Malvern, AR.
The single-track UPRR rail crossing which according to FRA statistics accommodates a daily average of 40 Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Amtrak trains at a maximum allowable speed of 60 mph, is barely into Hot Spring County, and initial response came from adjacent Montgomery County Sheriff’s officers.
“Once I heard there were children involved, that was my automatic,” Montgomery County Sheriff’s Dept. Sgt. Woody Perry told Little Rock ABC News Channel 7’s Alexis Rogers in a traumatic on-scene interview. “That is my body blow, man. That is bad because I am a dad,” Sgt. Perry added, noting that “A lot of people down here (at the scene) are related. For Hot Spring County, this is just the edge, and it’s a real tight-knit area. Everybody knows everybody.”
“I was welding over here on the trailer,” resident Jimmy Gatlin told KATV of his experience only a few feet away from the tragedy. “Then I heard the train coming. I heard it sat down on its horn like a dog or something was crossing the tracks.” As Gatlin, whose property is near the confusingly configured crossing, where only difficult-to-see flashing crossing lights mounted on single masts also supporting standard railroad cross-buck signs are present, continued his response to the reporter’s questions. “One of the first responders said the 7-year-old that was in the front seat died. I walked over to the fence line and seen (saw) the car down there and this little girl, her legs were hanging out the back of it. When I come around the vehicle I grabbed to help that little girl and she had a broken arm,” he continued. I tried to appease her while I had 911 on the phone. My brother went over and tried to help those two kids in the car.”
“There was a lady,” Gatlin said of the driver. “She was unresponsive, but breathing. My brother had already got the little girl out at the rear of the SUV, but there was (were) two more kids in there.”
The crossing has had two previous accidents resulting in a total of four non-fatal injuries. While the crossing lies on Old Dixonville Road just a few feet from a 90 degree intersection which dead-ends at Gifford Road, itself extending from Wine Dot Road, which never intersects the railroad tracks, yet is used by the FRA to identify the heavily tree and brush obscured road/rail crossing. Numerous Facebook social internet network commenters were critical of both the difficulty for anyone to traverse the crossing as well as cite erratic flashing light performance there.
The lack of crossing gates at the intersection is almost certainly a contributing factor in this tragedy. Both Union Pacific and Operation Lifesaver know that the addition of automatic gates to solely flashing light crossings can reduce accidents by up to two thirds.