(Gilroy, California – January 9, 2015)
A 54-year-old local resident was killed last Friday afternoon at about 12:58 P.M., PST when active grade crossing protective systems at the intersection of Masten Road and Union Pacific Railroad tracks failed to operate properly, leading victim Donald Williams and his 2008 Toyota Tacoma into the deadly path of a large track-mounted maintenance of way equipment known as a laser spiker.
The number of pre-accident, collision and post-tragedy witnesses, as well as statements made by UPRR personnel at the scene, were condemning of the crossing’s gates, lights and bells operation, which did not occur as they were designed.
Jim Geiger, who lives near the intersection of Masten Road, which crosses the UPRR tracks, and Monterey Road, which parallels the tracks, was walking his dogs past the soon-to-be-fatality scene just 45 minutes before the tragic collision, and recalled saying, as he observed the back-and-forth passage of the caravan of track maintenance machines that “Those gates aren’t down”, and surmising, almost prophetically, that “Somebody’s going to get killed there.”
Another nearby resident, Mike Villalobos heard the crash, which he described as a “metal-on-metal hit,” and sprinted to the victim, who was trapped in his vehicle, encouraging Williams to “Hang in there, buddy – help is on the way!” Villalobos was concerned that the two minutes he took to get to the victim became an impediment, as he was first on the scene and his words of encouragement were probably the last the victim ever heard.
“There was somebody trying to do something for him,” said the soft-spoken would-be rescuer. “Someone cared.” Williams was pronounced dead minutes later.
The failure of the crossing warning system to operate properly was confirmed by the California Highway Patrol’s report that “the crossbars and warning bells did not trigger before the crash as they should have.” Railroad and law enforcement representatives will meet to determine what went wrong with the crossing’s signals. The laser spiker was crossing southbound when it struck the unsuspecting driver, flipping it over onto the driver’s side and pinning Williams in the cab of his pickup truck.
Railroad employees at the scene told CHP officers, who included Officer Mark Kellogg, that “malfunctions of the safety arms during maintenance are common.”
In fact, Officer Kellogg told The Gilroy Dispatch that “Railroad personnel on the scene made statements that ‘it happens all the time’ with these vehicles that the arms don’t go down for one reason or another.”
Another motorist, Lolita Cavinta of Morgan Hill, CA, was stopped at the intersection of Church Avenue and the UPRR tracks when the crossing gates worked briefly, but then ascended back to the “all clear” position.
Cavinta, who was accompanied by her mother, witnessed the gates going back up after the passage of the first two maintenance machines as well as their subsequent rise, but could see two more maintenance vehicles following those for which she had stopped. “I asked my mom, ‘Do I go? I see them coming but the arms went up, which means you’re supposed to go.’ I had to guess because I saw them (the other maintenance machines) – and they weren’t stopping. So I just went for it. I didn’t want to get hit.”
She watched behind her and never saw the gates resume a protective position. “If the arms weren’t working during whatever maintenance they were doing, they should have had somebody out there warning cars to stop or something.” She told the Gilroy Dispatch writer.
An e-mail was sent to the news media by UPRR spokesman Jeff DeGraff, which read “Safety is a main priority for Union Pacific. This particular incident is being investigated thoroughly to determine what led to this accident and identify possible remedies.”