(Coteau, Louisiana – December 26, 2015)
The signalized but questionably-designed grade crossing of Louisiana Highway 88 (Coteau Road) and BNSF Railway tracks where Amtrak’s New Orleans-bound “Sunset Limited” train with 119 passengers on board slammed into a 2006 Ford Taurus was still being studied by officials days after the horrible December 23 accident that now has taken the lives of all those in the car except for Brandon Day, the 12-year-old twin brother of Chase Day, who remains hospitalized in critical condition at Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in Baton Rouge, LA . The twins were the Leblancs’ grandsons. The car was driven by a 70-year-old grandmother with her husband and five sixth graders headed home from a birthday party at a Lafayette, LA trampoline park inside
Wednesday’s tragedy was the 14th accident to occur at the crossing. The crossing is equipped with crossing gates and lights that were allegedly, but not proven to be functioning at the time of the collision, according to statistical records kept by the Federal Railroad Administration. Those incidents have now resulted in eight fatalities and three non-fatal injuries. Amtrak trains have been involved in six of the collisions. The most recent four collisions involved circumstances similar to those of Wednesday’s tragedies, in which vehicles were stopped at the highway stop sign.
Why driver Phyllis Leblanc stopped with the rear portion of her vehicle still too near the BNSF tracks, which were owned and operated by Southern Pacific Railroad until the 1986 usurpation of the company by Union Pacific and the merger condition-required sale of the line to BNSF, and continue to handle 14 trains daily of both railroads as well as Amtrak at allowable speeds as high as 70 mph, was still “up in the air,” according to Louisiana State Highway Patrol Master Trooper Brooks David, spokesman for LSHP Troop “I”.
“They may have been waiting on traffic,” speculated Master Trooper David. “”We’ll probably never know,” he said of the crash which occurred about 6 P.M., CST.
Indeed, there is insufficient designed space between the railroad pathway and paralleling Louisiana Highway 182 to fit any vehicle before it encounters the highway “stop” sign that governs the LA 88/LA 182 intersection. A sign prior to the railroad tracks advises against stopping on the tracks, but the ambiguity of conflicting signs cannot be discounted in the investigation of the tragedy which killed Leblanc and passengers of her auto Jayla Daigle and Trinity Schmidt instantly. Chase Day died on Christmas Day, and Steve Leblanc, the driver’s 49-year-old husband, passed away December 26 from his injuries incurred in the accident.
A series of photographs taken by New Orleans Advocate Staff Photographer Lanie Lee Cook accurately depicted the narrow railroad corridor and scant vehicular storage space present at the BNSF/LA 88/LA 182 intersection. “It’s a horrible, horrible intersection,” attested Steven Leblanc’s sister, Lori Louviere. “We’re just trying to cope with all that,” said another sister, Pam Leblanc, in response to questions from Advocate reporter/photographer Cook. The sisters complained that their relatives’ auto was trapped between front and rear traffic during a thunder storm when the crash occurred. Meanwhile, Cook’s critique of the collision included her observation that “A line of trees that begins about 50 yards to the west blocks a clear view of the tracks for any drivers headed north toward the crossing.”
A rail accident specialist Bob Comer, in studying a satellite view of the crossing’s layout, told The Advocate’s reporter that it “raises serious safety concerns.”
“That situation at Louisiana 88 is just absolutely the most dangerous possible situation you can get because the danger zone is about the length of a car, thus causing traffic buildup that could lead to a crash,” noted the Ohio-based railroad safety consultant.
All four 12-year-olds were 6th grade students attending Daspit Elementary School and their teacher, Tiffany Menard, was devastated by the news, breaking down in tears during an interview with Lafayette, LA TV station KATC, channel 3 Reporter Mycah Hatfield. “I’ve never lost a student and I never thought, being an elementary school teacher, I would have to deal with the loss of a student,” sobbed Hatfield, who described Daspit Elementary as “a very small school with about 65 students in the sixth grade, most of whom have been going to school together since they were four years old,” according to the TV reporter. The saddened teacher further called the class “very close-knit.”
“To lose them in such a tragic way…it’s just tough,” Ms. Menard concluded.