(San Leandro, California – May 24, 2016)
A 30-year-old Oakland, CA mother and her 3-year-old daughter both died in a 1:19 P.M., PDT Tuesday afternoon collision between their Toyota Rav-4 SUV and a Sacramento-bound Amtrak train. The Amtrak train had 39 passengers aboard and the collision occurred at the gated crossing of Union Pacific Railroad tracks and the multi-lane Washington Avenue in San Leandro, CA.
Vanessa Henriquez and her daughter, Saidy, were enroute in a southerly direction on Washington Avenue, on their way to pick up her son, when she either became stuck in traffic or confused by construction at the crossing over which as many as two dozen Amtrak passenger and UPRR freight trains pass daily at a maximum allowable speed of 79 mph. A relative, Jose Portillo, told ABC Channel 7 News that the family was devastated over the tragedy, calling Mrs. Henriquez “a dedicated, hardworking mom.”
The station also reported that the SUV was”caught on the tracks with no way to escape,” and quoted San Leandro Police Dept. Lt/ Bob McManus as saying “It appears that the vehicle that was struck today was trapped in traffic. It was stuck there prior to the railroad arms going down and was unable to get off the tracks safely before it was impacted at a high rate of speed by the Amtrak train.”
However, Lt. McManus was also quoted in an Associated Press story appearing in a trade publication, “Fire Fighter Nation”, that “There is a construction zone that could have created some confusion.”
The possible construction issue was given more credence after the airing of two investigative news features Wednesday, one by Reporter Laura Anthony of KGO-TV, Channel 7 ABC News, who pointed out that “there was construction in the area where PG&E crews were inspecting a gas pipeline.” The “PG&E crew was working in the area and had signs out funneling traffic down to one lane, just past the train crossing.” But the construction funnel had created a traffic jam, and frequent traveler over the area Lilla Magee commented to Channel 7 that “There were cars on the track and all the way up to the light.”
Magee said she had traveled the same route and been stopped on the same spot two hours earlier, and had an intuition of trouble. “I just had this feeling like ‘this is bad’. You really have to be on your toes not to get caught on the tracks.”
Meanwhile, Lt. McManus told Sarah Tan of the San Jose Mercury-News that “the intersection is unusual in that it allows several cars to build up between the railroad crossing arms,” adding that “even if the driver had seen the oncoming train, there would have been no place for them to drive to safely.” He further stated that first responders on the scene were “distraught by the aftermath of the crash,” and were “shocked to see what they saw.” He said the SLPD was offering counseling for those affected.
The SUV was struck virtually head-on by the northbound train, which was operating with the locomotive at the rear in “push/pull” mode.
Channel 7’s Anthony also spoke with Juan Colmenero, a family member who returned to the scene to “grieve and wonder if somehow this could have been prevented. They should have more security right here on these tracks because people come and go,” Colmenero observed. “It’s devastating!”
Pacific Gas & Electric, while expressing condolences to the Henriquez family, took a defensive posture against any PG&E involvement through a public statement. “While the incident is currently under investigation by local authorities at this point, this incident doesn’t appear to be directly related to any PG&E work in the area.”
SLPD Lt. McManus told Channel 7 that PG&E had a permit and a city inspector had signed off on the utility’s traffic management plan. “We do send inspectors out on a daily basis to make sure those permits are in full compliance and yesterday the proper signage for the traffic management plan were properly posted.” But that does not explain why, as the work created a dangerous traffic problem at the heavily-used road/rail intersection just a few feet behind it, there was no thought of posting a flag person to keep cars from occupying the tracks.
The Mercury-News also pointed out that “In six days, there have been eight train incidents – seven fatal – – involving four different passenger train lines and a freight train in the Bay Area.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration’s railroad crossing inventory website, Tuesday’s tragedy was the seventh rail crossing accident to occur at the Washington Avenue / UP intersection as well as the third and fourth deaths. The most recent deaths occurred in October, 2013, when a pedestrian shoving a shopping cart was hit by another Amtrak train. There have also been eight non-fatal injuries incurred due to accidents at the crossing.