(Corson, South Dakota – November 23, 2013)
A female motorist travelling west on Minnehaha County, SD’s 259th Street just north of Corson, SD, was surprised by a northbound BNSF freight train emerging from the heavy foliage of a grove of trees Saturday morning at about 10:15 am, and with insufficient distance in which to stop, collided with the train, which never stopped and continued on into the next state.
Patty Stettnichs, 58, of Brandon, SC escaped certain death, but not injury, as she was spotted by another motorist over a half hour later, still trapped inside her heavily-damaged automobile which was lying beside the dangerous and unguarded BNSF/259th Street crossing with no train anywhere in sight.
First person on the scene was Al Kuehl, who has lived next to the crossing for the past 22 years. He said he called 911 and covered the victim from the extreme cold Saturday. He said she was alert, talking, and told him that by the time she had seen the train, the only two choices available to her were slide into the train or accelerate and try to get past it. She unsuccessfully tried the latter. “The train actually hit her in the back door, so that tells you how close she was,” explained Kuehl to Sioux Falls, SD CBS-affiliate KELO-TV, Channel 11 Reporter Don Jorgensen. “You think her speeding up saved her life? I think it did,” he surmised.
Emergency responders from the Brandon Fire and Rescue Department, the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office and the South Dakota Highway Patrol were called to the scene about 10:51 A.M., and the victim was transported by ambulance to a Sioux Falls, SD hospital for treatment of undisclosed injuries.
The BNSF train was finally flagged down 15 miles away in Hills, MN, where the locomotive engineer and conductor claimed that they were unaware of any collision, but that the engineer looked back after the train’s engine crossed the intersection, and said it appeared to him that the vehicle was now parked alongside the road, and that from his point of view there appeared to be no damage. The “undamaged” auto was deemed a total loss by insurers.
The sole signage at the crossing consisted of a pair of standard, passive railroad cross-buck signs, one on either side of the crossing. Passive devices have no capability whatsoever to warn motorists of approaching trains, four of which pass over that crossing daily at top allowable speeds of 40 mph, at the severely and oddly-configured crossing, which trains approach at either obtuse or acute angles. Only properly-functioning active protection including flashing lights, bells and crossing gates can forewarn highway traffic of oncoming trains. It is virtually certain that lights and gates would have prevented this incident. Both BNSF and Operation Lifesaver know lights and gates are the most effective type of protection at railroad crossings. Studies that have been conducted over fifty years ago confirm that lights and gates offer the ability to drastically reduce the number of vehicle/train accidents by as much as 96%.
Local residents were quick to point out, and Federal Railroad Administration records agreed, that the crossing had been the site of a fatal car/train collision on March 17, 2009, when both the motor vehicle and the train were in identical directional positions as Saturday’s accident.
Kuehl told KELO-TV that the crossing is a dangerous intersection because of the hill vehicles must descend in approaching the railroad tracks, the curve in the road and the grove of trees that creates a blind spot for drivers.
One respondent said “Something needs to be done there – the completely blind crossing without lights or bars – before someone else gets killed! I have a hard time believing the train (crew) didn’t notice they hit someone.” Another commenter noted that “even if you stop, you don’t see a train coming until they are right there. The brush and trees have grown out of control in the area, so it’s very blind.”
The KELO-TV reporter also talked to an unidentified Brandon Township supervisor, who told him there was only so much the township could do, even though it maintains the road and the crossing signs. However, he promised that the situation would be a topic of discussion at the next township meeting.