(Coaling, Alabama – January 28, 2014)
Two men died and three as-yet unidentified individuals were hospitalized, believed to be in serious condition, when a Norfolk Southern freight train struck their pickup truck at the dangerous, unguarded crossing of Larry Nolan Road in Coaling, AL, just outside of Tuscaloosa, AL, Tuesday morning. It was unclear at first if snow showers and icy roads were factors in the collision, which took place at a crossing lacking active warning systems such as flashing lights, bells and crossing gates. Instead, the crossing, which the Federal Railroad Administration says accommodates a daily average of 15 trains at a top allowable speed of 60 mph, has only passive railroad cross-buck signs, devices which cannot possibly give motorists warning of oncoming trains as only fully-functioning active devices can, such as lights and gates.
It is virtually certain that lights and gates would have prevented this incident. Both Norfolk Southern 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 can gates offer the ability to drastically reduce the number of vehicle/train accidents by as much as 96%.
Also according to FRA railroad-generated records, the tragedy marked the fourth collision and second and third fatalities suffered at the NS/Larry Nolan Road crossing.
Killed were Charles Kelly Meiklejohn, 57, of Gulf Shores, AL and Terrance Mickles, 39, of Foley, AL. The three survivors, all of whom were admitted for treatment of serious injuries at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, AL, were not identified due to HIIPA privacy rules which will not allow a hospital to identify the names or conditions of admittees until their identities are released by the Alabama Dept. of Public Safety’s Highway Patrol according to hospital spokesman Brad Fisher.
While AHP Sgt. Steve Jarrett was as cooperative as the law allows in answering news media questions regarding the tragedy, calls made to Norfolk Southern representatives were still unreturned as late as Wednesday morning. Therefore, the status of the train, which allegedly partially derailed during the crash, its crew and its cargo were still unavailable a day later.
By Thursday, after statements from associates of the deceased and regular users of the crossing, Alabama State Troopers, who still had not released the names of the three men hospitalized with undisclosed injuries, told the news media that indicated their suspicion that Tuesday’s snowstorm may have been a factor in the tragic accident.
Hershel Lewis, a friend of Charles Meiklejohn, one of the two men killed, told ABC TV News Channels 33/40 that the men were a crew of contract workers for the Alabama DOT and had earlier been placing sod alongside I-59 in Tuscaloosa before the snowfall began Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Cottondale resident Jeremy Wood said that heavy snow made visibility down the NS railroad tracks next to impossible. He had just crossed the tracks a few minutes before the ill-fated pickup truck containing the five victims, and said he did not see the train until he was on University Road, which runs parallel to the tracks. “When they (the victims) crossed the track yesterday (Tuesday) the snow was blowing so bad you couldn’t even see the way down the tracks”, adding that “It’s a bad crossing, and when you can’t see, it makes it even worse”.