Truck driver in Amtrak crash in NC has history of violations

By MICHAEL BIESECKER and MITCH WEISS
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The truck driver who failed to maneuver his oversized rig through a railroad crossing, derailing an Amtrak train and injuring 55 people this week, is a convicted felon with a long history of traffic citations, court records show.

John Devin Black, 43, has been cited for at least a dozen traffic violations, including speeding and driving with a revoked license, according to records reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press.

One of his more recent arrests came in 2012 in Illinois, where records show he was cited while hauling an overweight load, and then failed to appear in court.

Black also served prison time in 1997 after being convicted of felony child abuse.

Black referred questions to his employer, Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro, which declined comment on Wednesday.

According to court records in Illinois, Black was arrested in December 2012 and charged with exceeding the permitted weight limit on his load. He was released on a $177 bond, but then failed to appear in court the following month.

In addition to the child abuse conviction, records in North Carolina show Black has also been convicted of assaulting a female and writing numerous worthless checks.

An Associated Press reporter walked past the no-trespassing sign on the front porch of Black's home in the rural community of Claremont, North Carolina, and knocked on the door seeking comment about the records. Black didn't answer, but shortly after the reporter left a note and a phone number, the the company called.

Asked about Black's driving record and other details of the accident, company spokeswoman Jeanette Landreth declined to comment, and said Black won't talk either.

No charges have yet been filed against the driver, though law enforcement officials said Tuesday that was still under consideration.

As workers finished clearing debris from the derailment site in Halifax, North Carolina, state and federal investigators were piecing together why there was apparently no warning given to the train's engineer as Black struggled to turn across the tracks with his huge tractor-trailer load, which weighed 127 tons and stretched for 164 feet, more than half the length of a football field.

Among the evidence will be the locomotive's "black box" recovered at the scene and the special state permit that allowed the trucking company to exceed length and weight limits as it hauled an electrical distribution facility to New Jersey.

The combined load was about three times the size and weight of a standard 18-wheeler, so huge it required a Highway Patrol escort, and so tall that it had to take back roads to avoid some Interstate overpasses. The route was pre-approved by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, including the fateful turn at the railroad crossing.

According to the permit, the big rig had 13 axles to support the combined weight of 255,000 pounds. A standard 18-wheeler has five axles and tops out at 80,000 pounds.

Between 30 and 35 passenger and freight trains use this stretch of CSX railroad daily, but no officials provided any indication that CSX or Amtrak was warned of the driver's difficulties at the crossing. "That's all going to be part of the investigation," CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay said.

Well-established protocols require truck drivers and their trooper escorts to "clear their routes and inform the railroad dispatchers what they're doing," said Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official who teaches railway management at Michigan State University. A toll-free emergency number prominently displayed at each crossing reaches a dispatcher who would have radioed Amtrak to stop, he added.

In this case, the train engineer "didn't know about the truck until he was coming around a curve," Ditmeyer said.

There had been at least five previous crashes involving vehicles on the tracks at the same Halifax crossing before Monday's crash, according to the Federal Railroad Administration's database. The most recent was in 2005, when a freight train hit a truck's "utility trailer." In 1977, an Amtrak train hit a car at 70 mph. That driver got out in time, but a railroad employee was injured, that accident report said.

Monday's crash also was the third serious train crash in less than two months. Crashes in New York and California in February killed a total of seven people and injured 30.

___

Biesecker reported from Raleigh and Weiss from Claremont in North Carolina. Associated Press reporters Tammy Weber in Chicago and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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