(Evans City, Pennsylvania – April 26, 2013)
Regular riders of the Butler Area Rural Transit minibus were doing what they did regularly at about 8:15 A.M. Friday morning: looking forward to another day of activities and programs at the ”Lifesteps” service center for the elderly and developmentally-challenged adults in Butler, PA, when something went horribly wrong. His minibus enveloped in a thick, morning fog as he drove along Maple Avenue in Evans City, PA, driver Frank Schaeffner became unaware of the fact that he had stopped his bus loaded with 10 adults afoul of, instead of away from CSX railroad tracks leased by the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, and his vehicle was struck by an Allegheny Valley Railroad locomotive pulling 29 freight cars. The Maple Avenue crossing is “protected” only by a pair of standard, passive railroad crossbuck signs, offering no warning of approaching trains like flashing lights, bells and crossing gates could have.
The accident produced both fear and consternation for many Butler County, PA residents who had placed their loved ones aboard the bus as they had done so often. But Friday was tragically different. As Cranberry, PA resident Linda Farrell turned on her television set to watch the morning news, she was horrified. There on the screen was an image of the familiar, white BART minibus upon which she had just placed her 25-year-old special needs son, Tim Farrell, which news reporters said had just been struck by a train.
Linda’s heart froze as she watched and listened to the news report. “As a mom, that was hard,” she later related. “Seeing and knowing it, it’s just a really hard thing.”
Fortunately for the Farrell’s, Tim was one of the luckier victims, as he was taken to Butler Memorial Hospital, treated for bumps and bruises, and released. But the young man, who has difficulty in speaking, was terrified by the accident. “It just scared him to death,” said Mom Linda. “He was a mess.”
One of her son’s friends, an unidentified resident of Cranberry, was also among the injured. He was taken to the University Of Pennsylvania Medical Center in McCandless, PA for treatment of his injuries. Doctors expect him to be OK following his treatment at UPMC. But other occupants of the bus did not fare as well as Tim Farrell and his friend did. Claudette Miller, 91, of Callery, PA, who rode the bus three times weekly to senior activities at “Lifesteps”, died from her severe head and body injuries a few hours after she was admitted to Allegheney General Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA.
“The family had just put her on the bus, and then they heard something on the news that the bus was hit,” related Dana Beers, Miller’s niece. Beers added that her aunt was a well-loved woman, having devoted years of her life to her church.
Later in the day, investigative news media began to question why the Maple Avenue railroad crossing had no active protection devices. WTAE-TV Reporter Paul Van Osdol referred viewers to a study made by the Association of American Railroads five years ago. “Grade crossing warning devices work,” said the AAR study. “The accident and fatality rates could be reduced by 93% if automatic, active protection were employed,” the reporter said, quoting facts from the AAR’s own web site.
Several TV stations were able to get in contact with the Federal Railroad Administration, whose representatives told them that, based upon past accident experience, amount of rail and highway traffic and other factors, the Maple Avenue crossing simply did not warrant the quarter-of-a-million-dollars cost of purchase and installation of active crossing protection. Even though the rail entities involved were multiple – CSX owns the track, the Buffalo & Pittsburgh leases the track and the Allegheney Valley RR, a subsidiary of Carload Express, Inc., accesses the rail route via trackage rights, the answers to the problem of grade crossing protection was still a trade-off between life and money.
The investigative agencies responding to Friday morning’s tragedy, meanwhile, are even more numerous: besides the Pennsylvania State Police, Butler County Sheriff’s Office and Evans City Police Dept., the Butler County District Attorney, Transportation Security Administration, and Dept. of Homeland Security, all sent representatives to the scene.