(Pawnee County, Oklahoma – June 27, 2014)
A dangerous, unguarded and obscured rural Pawnee County, OK grade crossing of BNSF rails and Pawnee County Road 3430 was the site of a quintuple injury collision between a BNSF freight train and a 2010 Dodge Ram 2500 king-cab pickup truck being driven by a 51-year-old grandmother hauling four of her grandchildren to a birthday party at about 12:27 P.M., CDT Friday. Sadly, this tragedy was far from the intersection’s first.
The driver, Patricia Ringwald, who lives near the crossing north of Highway 64 and west of Pawnee, OK, and two of her four grandchildren – all four of whom were from Duncan, OK, and none of them identified by name – were airlifted by three separate helicopters to St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, OK, where the grandmother was admitted in critical condition and two of her grandchildren were admitted in serious condition. The two other grandchildren were transported to Stillwater, OK Medical Center, where they were both treated for their injuries and released. Fortunately, all are expected to survive their injuries.
The train, which was hauling 55 double-stack container cars from Enid, OK to Tulsa, OK at 48 mph in what a BNSF official said was a 55-MPH track speed limit, but what Federal Railroad Administration documents said carries a 49-mph limit, struck the truck on the passenger side, rolled it completely around, and deposited it several yards down the track on its passenger side and in heavily damaged condition. Skid marks on the crossing’s surface itself as well as on the approach showed that Ringwald may have attempted to stop as soon as she saw the train, but to no avail.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Mark Sparks, who arrived on the scene only minutes after the collision and found a chaotic situation, told Tulsa Fox TV Channel 23’s Brittany Jeffers that “It’s heartbreaking. It’s hard to see children and especially when one of the sisters was saying ‘my sister is hurting, my sister is hurting.’ It’s tough.”
The veteran trooper also told other news media “Looking at the scene right now, it appears she just didn’t see the train coming.”
This crossing is not equipped with any active warning devices, such as lights and gates, to warn of the oncoming train. To make matters worse, satellite photos show heavy tree line foliage obscuring all four quadrants of the crossing. It is virtually certain that lights and gates would have prevented this tragedy. Both Union Pacific and Operation Lifesaver know lights and gates are the most effective type of protection at railroad crossings. Studies that have been conducted over fifty years ago confirm that lights and gates offer the ability to drastically reduce the number of vehicle/train accidents by as much as 96%.
This incident Friday was the seventh to occur at that intersection and, although there have been no fatalities thus far, resulting in a total of 11 injuries.
Ringwald’s neighbor, Johnny Bryant, told Fox 23 that he was in Tulsa and panicked when he learned of the tragedy. “I was worried it was my kids. I mean, you just never know.”