Train's emergency brake was activated, safety arms at site of GOP train crash appeared to malfunction

Washington Post

Federal investigators said Thursday that data gathered from an Amtrak train carrying Republican lawmakers that hit a garbage truck near Crozet, Virginia, on Wednesday indicates that the engineer activated the emergency brake and the train came to a full stop 20 seconds later.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) haven't determined what caused the crash but said they are hopeful they will be able to recover footage from the train's front-facing camera, which could offer insight on whether the truck was moving at the time of impact and whether the signal system at the crossing was functioning properly.

Pete Kotowski, the NTSB's lead investigator at the site, said officials have interviewed one Amtrak crew member and hope to speak with the train engineer and truck driver in coming days. They also have interviewed four witnesses, some of whom indicated there may have been previous problems with the crossing signals.

One person was killed, and six were hospitalized following the crash in the rural community about 110 miles southwest of Washington.

Albemarle County police identified the person who died as Christopher Foley, 28, of Louisa County, a passenger in the trash truck owned by Time Disposal. Foley was one of three Time Disposal employees in the vehicle.

The Amtrak train was a charter carrying dozens of Republican lawmakers and their spouses, children and staff to an annual GOP retreat, held this year at The Greenbrier, a resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

More than a dozen NTSB investigators and officials from the Federal Railroad Administration have been on the scene since Wednesday evening. Officials said the investigation could take 12 to 14 months to complete.

NTSB board member Earl Weener said investigators have no reason to believe the crash was anything other than an accident.

"At this point, it is still classified as an accident, a grade-crossing accident," Weener said.

NTSB officials said the train was traveling at 61 mph when it struck the truck. The speed limit for that area of track is 60 mph.

As part of the investigation, NTSB officials are also scrutinizing safety records for Time Disposal.

According to Kotowski, the firm had undergone six safety roadside inspections in recent years, and trucks were placed out of service two of those times, but the NTSB is trying to determine the nature of any defects found. He said officials at the company, which has been in business for more than three decades, have been cooperative.

The company announced Thursday that it had set up a GoFundMe page to help support Foley's family.

"Today at Time Disposal we find ourselves in shock," officials wrote in a post on the company's Facebook page. "Yesterday we lost an employee and a brother, his one year old son and mother of his child lost a father. . . . May he rest in peace, you will be missed by many Chris."

The two other Time Disposal employees, the 20-year-old driver and another passenger, were injured in the crash and were being treated at a hospital. Among the lawmakers, only Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., was hospitalized. He was treated for minor injuries and released.

Officials at the University of Virginia Medical Center said four victims from the crash have been treated and released. Two remain hospitalized - one in critical condition and the other in fair condition.

The segment of track where the crash occurred is owned by CSX Transportation but leased to Buckingham Branch Railroad. A spokesman for CSX said Buckingham is responsible for maintenance, signaling and managing train traffic on the line.

The crossing had gates, flashing lights and a "hump" warning sign for approaching drivers.

Lawmakers aboard the train said they felt a sharp jolt and then a "hard impact" that "threw everybody up in the air a little."

The crash was "loud and surprising," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. "We saw debris go by the left side of the train. The part of the truck we [could] see was decimated. Very relieved when the train came to a stop and [was] still on the tracks."

A neighbor reported hearing a sound like a "big metal crash." Photos of the scene showed the truck with its front cab crushed and garbage strewn around it.

Lawmakers, including several who were doctors, climbed out of the train to help those who were injured.

The crash was the second for Amtrak in less than two months. In December, a Portland-bound Amtrak train making its inaugural run on a new route derailed 60 miles south of Seattle. The crash remains under investigation.

On Wednesday, District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, D, called for congressional hearings on the state of rail safety in the United States.

A spokeswoman for Buckingham declined to say whether there had been previous reports of problems with warning lights or arms at the crossing and referred all inquires to the NTSB.

The safety arms at the railroad crossing appeared to be malfunctioning the day before the deadly crash, drivers who regularly cross over the tracks at the crash scene said Thursday.

Gene Locke, who lives near the tracks in Crozet, said he pulled up to the crossing between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and saw that the safety arms were down and the signal light was flashing, but there was no train approaching from either direction. After waiting a minute or so, he backed up, turned around and took a different route, assuming there was either a malfunction of the signal crossing or workers were testing it.

"I did not report this, as it was the first time this has happened in my observation since I have been using that crossing for several years," Locke told The Associated Press.

Jane Rogers, who lives about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the crash site, said that when she arrived at the crossing Tuesday, the gate was down, even though there were no trains approaching. She said after waiting, one car in front of her and two cars behind her turned around. Then, as she started to turn around, the gate went up. One car then crossed the tracks, but Rogers said she waited another 30 seconds, then the gate went down again. No trains passed, she said.

"It was a weird up-and-down thing," she said. "Then the next day, the accident happened at that intersection."

The crash happened at an intersection that crosses the tracks at the top of a hill where visibility is limited.

Rogers said she reported the trouble to the police after she heard about the fatal crash. She said she would have called about the malfunctioning arm on Tuesday, "but who do you call? No one knows."

Benny Layne, on whose property the truck landed, said the crossing arms had been known to malfunction, sometimes coming down even though no train was approaching. Sometimes, he said, they stayed down for hours.

"A guy was up here just yesterday or the day before taking a look at them," he said Wednesday.

Carrie Brown, human resources manager at Buckingham Branch Railroad, which leases the stretch of track and is responsible for maintenance, said she was unaware of any problems with equipment at the crossing. At a Wednesday night news conference, the National Transportation Safety Board said signal experts would be looking at the safety of the crossing.

As part of their investigation, NTSB officials have asked the public to share photos or video of the crash or its aftermath. Witnesses with information to share should contact witness@ntsb.gov.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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