(Batavia, Iowa – April 4, 2013)
Facts surrounding the horrible tragedy that occurred last Monday at bout 4:07 P.M. when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train struck a 2004 Dodge Minivan at the Fourth Street crossing in the southeast Iowa community of Batavia continue to evolve. The Iowa State Patrol is conducting a close-to-the-vest investigation of the circumstances that led to the deaths of two young sisters, Kallie Clark, 5, and Erika Clark, 4, and serious injuries to their infant sister, Jordan, 1, and the girls’ mother, Tara Lewman, 25.
The tragic event was allegedly the result of several circumstances that compounded upon each other. One of the circumstances was the presence of a BNSF train occupying the eastbound track of the double-tracked, signalized crossing, thus blocking the mother’s view of the oncoming train on the westbound track. As well as the driver being flagged through the lowered crossing gates by railroad personnel. The driver, picked up her two daughters from the school bus stop only minutes earlier, which is south of the Fourth Street/BNSF crossing (the only access across the rail line, which carries as many as 40 BNSF freights and Amtrak passenger trains daily at a top allowable speed of 79 mph, for the 500 residents of the small Jefferson County community). Whether or not rail personnel flagged her through on her return trip is still unconfirmed. The mother, reportedly hesitated when she was flagged through the crossing again on her way back from picking up her daughters, but this time she encountered the train barreling through the intersection that was hidden from her view. If railroad personnel first assumed flagging positions, which is permissible, they should never have abandoned their posts in the continuing situation that resulted in the tragedy.
Eyewitness Verdae Blom, an employee of Vision Ag, an industry located on the southeast quadrant of the crossing, described the wreck scene as “a tangled-up mess.” He said he heard a loud noise that sounded like a collision around 4:00 P.M., and looked toward the crossing to see a large plume of dust. He immediately proceeded to the crossing, where he found the two girls thrown from the mangled, destroyed vehicle and the mother desperately trying to remove her infant from her car seat. “The whole back of it (the minivan) on the passenger side from the front seat, the whole thing was wiped out.”
“That’s the first time I’d seen anything like this,” recalled Blom, “it was terrible!”
The accident was, however, neither the first for the grade crossing nor the first major railroad tragedy for the Batavia community. The intersection had been the site of two earlier accidents that resulted, cumulatively, in one death and two non-fatal injuries. Also on April 23, 1990, Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr train derailed its last eight passenger cars in the area adjacent to the crossing. Although there were no deaths, one passenger was seriously injured while 75 other passengers were moderately injured, as were 10 members of the train’s crew. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation later revealed that the derailment was the fault of a buckled track alignment, resultant from the in-field, in-place track welding operations conducted by railroad maintenance crews as they created continuous welded rail from previously jointed rail without removing the rails from the track structure.
Whether or not railroad workers had helped flag traffic at the crossing, Batavia Fire Chief Dave Wells confirmed that the railroaders jumped in to offer post-crash aid to the victims. “When our guys got there, the railroad people were already doing CPR on one of the kids,” the Chief of the small, all-volunteer department attested. “It’s a very sad thing,” Chief Wells added. “Crashes with small children are never easy to deal with.”
Sgt. Russ Morey of the Iowa State Patrol speculated that the presence of the second train obscured the victim’s view of the track, especially of the oncoming westbound train.
An eyewitness who also jumped in to help where he could recalled, “I told my wife that train just hit that van and went up there (to the scene). When I got there, she was trying to pull her baby out of the car seat. It had been thrown out of the van. The other two (children) were lying quite a ways away from the van. She was incoherent. She just kept talking about her babies.”
Another eyewitness, Greg Heger, stated that “about the time she got even with the train, I heard the whistle of another one headed westbound, and when she cleared the train, I heard the sound of impact.” In Heger’s opinion, the crossing mechanism has “some kind of malfunction, because they’ll drop and sit there and flash and the bells will ring for a while, and then they’ll pick up, drop and pick up…” He says the inconsistency of the warning system’s operation leads motorists to go around the lowered gates, admitting that “I’ve done that myself.”
But the witness’s composure broke when he tried to describe attempts to care for the young victims, saying it “was something really devastating to see – little babies – I checked the pulse,” and his voice trailed off.
Meanwhile, BNSF personnel both at the site and via phone refused comment on the accident.
Other witnesses told the Des Moines Register that trains rarely blow their horns at the Fourth Street crossing, but that the practice of whistling for the crossing increased dramatically after Monday’s tragedy. Batavia resident Lacey Mills, whose children rode the same school bus from which Lewman had picked up her two daughters, observed that “they used to not blow their horns very much in Batavia, and every train I’ve heard today starts blowing them clear down at the beginning of Batavia, and you can hear them blowing every few seconds.”
Mills said she had driven across the Fourth Street crossing only 20 minutes before the accident, and saw the parked train, but the gates were raised. “And then we got home and heard the fire truck and the ambulance.” When she told her seven-year-old son that his schoolmates had died, “he had tears in his eyes, and he’s like ‘Are they gonna come back?’”
Tara Lewman was released from the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City Wednesday according to Batavia Mayor Randy Major, but she was staying in Iowa City to be close to her still-hospitalized infant daughter, Jordan. “Everybody feels for the family,” said the mayor. “It’s just a tragic thing to happen.”
Major also said the Batavia community had donated two burial lots at the local cemetery as well as establishing a memorial fund at the Libertyville Savings Bank in nearby Fairfield, IA, to assist the family with funeral arrangements, which are scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 1:00 P.M. at the Grace Funeral Home in Batavia or through Grace Funeral Care in Eldon, IA. Donations to the fund can also be made through the City of Batavia. A three-hour visitation will be held from 4:00 to 7:00 P.M. Saturday.