(Nowata, Oklahoma – October 8, 2013)
The tragic deaths of two sisters, ages 9 and 6, who were returning home from their school in a Ford SUV being driven by their mother, a school district employee, at the dangerous and unguarded crossing of Nowata County Road 28 (CR 280) and Union Pacific Railroad tracks just north of the Nowata County line should never have occurred according to residents who live near and frequently use the crossing. The crossing lacks any form of active crossing protection (flashing lights, bells and crossing gates) whatsoever.
Hailey Benham, 9, and her sister, Hannah Benham, 6, were on their way home after a day at the Oologah-Talala elementary school with their mother, the car’s driver Natalie Benham, 28. Natalie is still a patient at Tulsa’s St. John Medical Center where she is being treated for internal abdominal and leg injuries.
Both the Union Pacific train and the Benhams’ vehicle were traveling southbound until the mother made a left turn onto Nowata County Road 28 (also known as CR 280) to cross the railroad tracks that accommodate 23 trains on UPRR double tracks daily at speeds as high as 60 mph. The railroad parallels U.S. Highway 169, and the crossing of the railroad tracks occurs only a few feet east of the CR 28/U.S. 169 intersection.
Last Tuesday, as students and faculty at the upper and lower elementary schools mourned their loss, Tulsa TV station KJRH, Channel 2, Reporter Liz Bryant visited the tragic scene and listened to the history of complaints filed by citizens in Nowata and Watova, OK.
John Knight, himself a railroad retiree after 25 years with Union Pacific, has lived adjacent to the crossing since 1977. “We just lost two precious children at that crossing,” Knight told KJRH’s Bryant. “How many more do we have to lose? How many more accidents before we can have lights and gates at our crossing?” he asked.
A number of other neighbors added to Knight’s lament, telling the TV reporter that they had repeatedly called Union Pacific’s 1-800 number posted near the cross-buck sign which stands silently by the crossing, offering no active warning of oncoming trains. The residents told the TV reporter that they reported “problem after problem on how dangerous the crossing is.”
Knight complained that, with the two parallel tracks, “Frequently a train is parked on the track closest to you, creating a blind spot. When another train uses the track further away, you can’t see it.”
Frequent crossing users also told the KJRH-TV reporter that “between the highway noise, your air conditioning and radio, you can’t hear the train’s whistle.”