(Panhandle, Texas – June 28, 2016)
Two BNSF freight trains operating in maximum 70 mph territory (although railroad officials denied that either train was traveling at that high a speed) collided head-on with each other Tuesday morning about 8:40 A.M. A daily average of 72 freight trains travel over the double main line tracks where the collision occurred. The collision left only one of four crew members accounted for and explosions, towering fireballs and plumes of smoke causing concerns that led to road closures and evacuations in the small Texas town of Panhandle, located about 25 miles west of Amarillo, TX in Carson County.
Traffic on Highway 60, which closely parallels the BNSF railroad corridor, had to be rerouted as fire crews attempted to extinguish the diesel fuel-fed flames so a search could be mounted for the three missing crew members. Each of the two intermodal freight trains had a locomotive engineer and a conductor on board, and the only one known to have survived had jumped from his moving train prior to the collision between the two containerized freight trains. That unidentified crew member, said to be the engineer of the westbound train, was admitted at an area hospital for treatment of injuries he received when he jumped from his moving train.
The fires burned for two days, and searchers finally found the remains of two crewmen, while the fourth was still missing and unaccounted for. No names were released, but all employees involved were said to have headquartered in Amarillo, TX.
According to reports, eastbound BNSF train S-LACLPC1-26 failed to stop at the red signal at the east end of track Main 1 at the Panhandle siding where the train was to meet westbound BNSF train Q-CHISBD6-27. The westbound train had refueled at Amarillo for the trip west to Los Angeles, CA, and the high volume of diesel fuel on board probably contributed to the massiveness of the flames, according to Texas DPS Sgt. Dan Buesing.
Officials ordered evacuation of some of the community’s 2,500 residents due the fear of the flames igniting fast-moving prairie grass fires, told some residents to stay in their homes but ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice, and asked residents to curtail water usage as firefighting activities depleted the town’s water supplies.
The number of cars and locomotives derailed was not immediately available, but officials did say the wreckage was strewn about 400 yards from the site of the collision.
Eyewitness Angel Waltz told the Amarillo Globe-News that she was sitting on her front porch drinking coffee when she heard metal screeches and saw the trains smash into each other, head-on. She said that there were small explosions and then a huge fireball erupted, causing the ground to shake.
Billie Brown, a local farmer, said he saw the fireball erupt from the collision and commented that “I don’t know how anyone survived. It’s terrible. I’ve seen a number of train wrecks, but I’ve never seen one like this.”
Another witness, Bern Watts, recorded cell phone video of the carnage as he drove by on Highway 60. “We were about two miles away when it exploded and we actually saw it happen,” he told TV reporters. “We drove by before the police got there,” recalled Watts, adding that he was “thankful we weren’t closer when it happened.”
An investigatory team from the National Transportation Safety Board was dispatched from Washington, DC, and the Texas Dept. of Public Safety held a situation status news conference as flames continued to burn Tuesday afternoon. NTSB Railroad Accident Investigator Richard Hipskind said “Our mission is to understand not just what happened, but why it happened, and to make recommendations or changes to prevent it from happening again.”
BNSF Spokesman Joe Faust told news media representatives that the collision was the type of accident that Positive Train Control, a satellite-based system designed to override human error and slow or stop trains on a collision course, can prevent, “While sections of the track operated by the eastbound train involved in this accident have PTC installed and are being tested, the section of track where the incident occurred will be installed later this year.”
In Washington, DC, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urged the railroad industry to “move as fast as they possibly can” to put PTC into operation. Any collision is “a terrible event,” Foxx declared, that “Ones that technology could have helped us avoid remind us how critical it is to get this technology in place.”
Foxx also said “Folks don’t have to wait until the deadline (2020) to get PTC compliant.”