(Cade, Louisiana – July 26, 2013)
The use of automobile seat belts proved to be part of a deadly drama played out at about 12:30 P.M. Wednesday in Cade, LA, when a 51-year-old home health nurse and single mother of three grown children found herself in her GMC van in a line of vehicular traffic as crossing gates descended and trapped her in the path of a westbound Amtrak passenger train in Louisiana’s St. Martin Parish.
Cassandra Andrews of Cade, LA lived through the crushing of her van when Amtrak’s Sunset Limited struck her entrapped vehicle, dragged it several hundred feet, and deposited it trackside some distance from the Louisiana Highway 92 crossing of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks just east of Lafayette, LA and, as rescuers vainly attempted to free the victim from her mangled vehicle and the jammed seat belts that should have saved her, the van burst into flames, driving the would-be heroes away from the inferno which tragically became her funeral pyre.
One of the responders, an unnamed neighbor of the victim, ran to his truck to get a knife to cut the belt with, but was too late in his heroic efforts, according to Andrews’ boyfriend, James Woodard, whom the victim was enroute to pick up from work for lunch. “He couldn’t get her from underneath the strap, so he went to his car to get a knife,” related Woodard, but “it (the GMC van) blew up and he stood there and watched her cry and holler for help and he couldn’t touch her,” sobbed the inconsolable boyfriend.
The crossing of Louisiana 92 (Smede Highway) and BNSF tracks is paralleled on the south by Louisiana Highway 182/Old Spanish Trail North and on the north side of the tracks by St. Martin Parish Road 179, and the crossing has storage room for only a single car on each side, forcing some vehicles onto the crossing itself due to traffic control devices. The Highway 92 crossing is not perpendicular, and takes an odd angle for the road segments to connect with their counterparts on the other side of BNSF tracks in either direction.
Even though the crossing is fully equipped with flashing lights, bells and gates, the design of the road/rail intersection, which was originally Southern Pacific property, and ultimately BNSF property is questionable. The Sunset was a crack SP passenger train between New Orleans and Los Angeles, and continued in operation following the 1971 creation of what would become known as Amtrak. The crossing accommodates a daily average of 2,400 highway vehicles and 14 trains representing BNSF, Union Pacific, Amtrak and Louisiana & Delta railroads each day at a top allowable speed of 70 mph, about double that rate which highway vehicles travelling beside the tracks on the parallel roadways and across them on Highway 92 must abide by.
Ms. Andrews’ tragic death was not the first at the crossing, which has now been the site of eight accidents resulting in two fatalities and another non-fatal injury according to Federal statistics.