(Larimore, North Dakota – January 13, 2015)
“And this never would have happened if they’d listen to me.” That was the complaint of Larimore, ND resident Carol Buchanan in regard to the relatively “it’s not our responsibility” reply she received from officials at the BNSF Railway back in 2009 after her neighbor, Darvin “ Fred” Friederich, died in a collision with a BNSF train at the same, tree-obscured crossing where a school bus driver and a senior student at Larimore High School were killed and another dozen students were injured, some seriously, in a collision between a BNSF freight train and a Larimore School District bus last Monday at about 3:40 P.M., CST.
Buchanan called “Whistle Blower” Editor Neil Carlson at Valley News Live after Monday’s tragedy ruined the re-opening of school the first day after the Christmas/New Year’s Break for the community and school system about 25 miles west of Fargo to unearth the railroad’s reaction to the fatality five years ago.
Neither of the collisions would have occurred had the BNSF crossing at 36th Avenue Northeast been equipped with properly operating flashing lights, bells and crossing gates. The railroad’s answer to Buchanan’s request was, in her words, “We regret to inform you that we can’t do it.” This was the answer even though BNSF and Operation Lifesaver know that flashing lights and gates can reduce tragedies such as this one by as much as 96%.
“And now it’s happened again”, Buchanan complained to the media investigator. “Now there’s a school bus with children in it and a bus driver that was killed,” she continued. “I feel like that nobody has acknowledge(d) what I wanted to do in the first place.”
Melissa Purvis of Fargo, Buchanan’s daughter, echoed her mother’s complaint with her own memories of growing up near the deadly intersection, saying that “when it’s really foggy, rainy, snow, any of the North Dakota conditions, you don’t see it (the train) coming at all.”
Living only a short 100 yards distance from the crossing, Richard and Susan Lunski were among the first people to respond to the plights of the surviving accident victims, and Richard told Sarah Volpenheim of The Bismarck Tribune that “the image of injured children scattered across the site, their backpacks and other belongings strewn about, was still burned into his eyelids.”
Richard said that he and Susan did what “anyone else would do,” but that “The biggest thing was trying to calm the kids down. One girl, all she would say was, ‘Did anybody die?’” He recalled that “They were shaking and going into shock.”
The Lunski’s told of rescuing one young victim from beneath the bus’s engine compartment. The little girl was covered in diesel fuel, and “I can’t get the smell out,” Susan tearfully related.
And even though first responders arrived within 15 minutes of the first call for help, “It seemed like forever,” she said. Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said that the first of his deputies to get to the scene was “traumatized” by the sight of the imperiled children on the opposite side of the tracks and his pathway to giving aid to the injured blocked by the stopped train. “He could hear the kids moaning and groaning and had to crawl across the train to get over to the scene,” Sheriff Rost told Volpenheim.
The Bismarck Tribune reporter went on to say that, according to BNSF’s McBeth, “Stop signs were installed at the crossing in the fall of 2009,” and, not in the message from the railroad spokeswoman, but shortly after the first fatality was suffered at the BNSF/36th Avenue Northeast crossing and likely without the proper engineering review to determine if the installation of stop signs were even appropriate. As stop signs have the possibility of making some crossings more dangerous.