(Mer Rouge, Louisiana – October 5, 2014)
The tranquility of an early Sunday afternoon for residents of the northeast Louisiana town of Mer Rouge suffered a serious interruption at about 1:00 P.M. after a truck hauling a rubber-tired crane became impaled upon a moderately-humped but unmarked as super-elevated crossing and was struck by an 87-car northbound Union Pacific freight train, derailed both its locomotives and 17 of its freight cars, injured both train crew members, and resulted in a more than two-hour-long evacuation of all homes and businesses within a half-mile radius of the mid-town accident.
One of the train’s locomotives overturned and collided with a large trackside oak tree. The engine’s main door was against the ground, forcing emergency responders to pry off an access door to rescue the trapped crew members, whom UP Spokesman Jeff DeGraff refused to identify, saying in an e-mail to news media that “Out of concern for the privacy of our employees, we are not releasing their names.” The conductor of the train was airlifted to a Shreveport, LA hospital, while the engineer was taken by ground ambulance to a local hospital, where he was admitted.
“They were both conscious, but both were in serious condition,” observed Morehouse Parish Sheriff Mike Tubbs.
“By far, this is the worst one I have seen here,” remarked Mer Rouge Chief of Police Mitch Stephens as he surveyed what was left of an 18-wheeler carrying a crane and the train’s cars and locomotives.
“This is Mer Rouge,” continued the police chief in remarks to news media. “We’re pretty much known here for train crashes. I believe this will be the third or fourth one in the past two years.”
Sheriff Tubbs agreed, saying “I’ve never seen something of this magnitude.”
Sunday afternoon’s collision and subsequent derailment, which also slightly injured trucker Daniel Shackleford of Freedom, MO, who was transporting the rig for Taylor Truck Line of Northfield, MN, came at a Y-shaped intersection of three major arteries and Highway 165, which runs parallel to the railroad. The site is in the downtown area of the Morehouse Parish community, and the crossing collision itself, according to statistics provided by the Federal Railroad Administration, was the 14th to occur there, even though the crossing has a full package of safety appliances: crossing gates, bells and flashing lights; but the omission that, as track maintenance built up the surface elevation of the railroad tracks, the level of the street approaches stayed the same, was the chief factor, as the rig became impaled far prior to the activation of the signals and arrival of the train. Those mishaps killed three and now have injured a total of eight people. A daily average of 22 trains traverses the crossing at a maximum speed of 40 mph.
“It was a lowboy,” said Chief Stephens. “We’ve had this occur numerous times in the past, where trailers would get hung up on the tracks.” As for the driver, Chief Stephens remarked that “The driver jumped out of the truck and took off running. That was all he could do.”
The reason for the evacuation was because one of the derailed tank cars was found to be leaking argon gas, which authorities said can cause dizziness, unconsciousness and asphyxia once the level of an argon-rich environment is reached.
“We’re lucky that wasn’t one of our oil trains that we get 10 times a day,” said Mer Rouge Mayor Johnny McAdams. “If it had been an oil train, we would have had a fire and then we would have had fatalities.”
Among the first public officials on the scene was Fourth District Attorney Jerry Jones, who applauded the work of rescuers, saying “All of the first responders were on the scene almost immediately and doing their job, which is protecting the town and the people.”
By Monday, cleanup and re-railing activities were still being conducted, causing the closure and detour of several main routes through Mer Rouge, including U.S. highways 165 and 425, and Louisiana 2, 134,585 and 3051.