By EMERY P. DALESIO and MARTHA WAGGONER
HALIFAX, N.C. (AP) — An Amtrak train slammed into a tractor-trailer that got stuck on the tracks while trying to make a difficult left-hand turn Monday. One of the train's cars toppled and the conductor and at least 54 others were injured.
It was the third serious train crash in less than two months. Two deadly crashes in New York and California in February killed a total of seven people and injured 30.
The oversized flatbed trailer involved in Monday's crash was transporting a modular building wrapped in blue plastic and jammed with electrical equipment, said Lt. Jeff Gordon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
One of the troopers escorting the truck from Clayton, North Carolina, to the Virginia border was trying to help the driver negotiate a difficult left-hand turn across the tracks onto a two-lane highway in the town of Halifax, Gordon said. But the 164-foot tractor-trailer combination, longer than half a football field, couldn't navigate it, he said.
During the five minutes or so the trooper and driver spent attempting to get the truck turned and off the tracks, there was no indication of an approaching train, Gordon said. When the train appeared, it set off warning flashers and the crossing arms came down as the truck was still straddling the tracks, he said. The train hit the truck shortly afterward, Gordon said.
He said the truck was unable to back off the tracks before the train hit because traffic had backed up on the road behind him.
Eyewitness Leslie Cipriani, who was in a car with a friend at a stop sign, heard the sound of the oncoming train and said she saw the crossing arms hit the tractor-trailer.
"I saw him jump out of the truck when he knew he couldn't beat it. ... I heard the train noise and thought, 'Oh, my God, it's going to happen,'" said Cipriani, who shot video of the collision with her cellphone.
State transportation officials said 54 of the injured were taken to hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries after Monday's crash. They said one had more serious injuries. Details were not immediately available. Among the injured was the train's conductor, Gordon said.
Federal authorities said they believed 62 people were injured. The discrepancy could not be resolved immediately.
Buses were taking about 170 passengers to Richmond, Virginia, where they could board another train, said state Transportation Department spokesman Mike Charbonneau.
Steve Pearce was waiting in Richmond for his 22-year-old daughter, Alexis, a Duke University student who boarded the train to visit her father for spring break. Alexis had been in a car accident three weeks ago, her father said. She was "screaming and crying" when she called him Monday, and said a man in her train car was taken away on a gurney because he possibly hurt his back when his seat came loose and twisted in the crash.
Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael J. Cole said it appeared that the locomotive and two cars derailed. State transportation officials said one baggage car derailed. The train had one locomotive and seven cars, Cole said. He said the authorized speed for the train is 70 mph, but authorities don't yet know how fast the train was traveling.
At dusk, several undamaged cars from the train sat on the rails waiting for another engine to arrive and pull them away from the site of the crash, which happened just steps from homes and a Baptist church. Bright lights lit up the scene after nightfall as crews worked to remove the derailed cars and the truck. Halifax County Sheriff Wes Tripp said the goal was to reopen the intersection by midnight.
Gordon identified the owner of the tractor-trailer as Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro. A statement on the company's website, later removed, said the company's thoughts and prayers were with anyone who was injured.
Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official who teaches railway management at Michigan State University, looked at the crossing on Google Maps and said the curve of the railroad heading toward the intersection would have made it hard for the engineer to see up ahead, or for the truck driver to see down the track. Furthermore, the tracks don't cross the road at a 90-degree angle.
"This is also known as a bad geometry crossing," he said.
The Amtrak train was the Carolinian, which runs between Charlotte, North Carolina, and New York City each day. It was headed north at the time of the crash.
On Feb. 7 in New York, the driver of an SUV and five train passengers were killed in a collision in Valhalla, about 20 miles north of New York City. That crash happened after the driver of the SUV had stopped on the tracks, between the lowered crossing gates, for reasons still unclear to investigators.
On Feb. 24 in California, the engineer of a Southern commuter train was killed and 30 people were injured when the train struck a heavy pickup truck and trailer that had been abandoned on the tracks in Oxnard, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Waggoner reported from Raleigh, North Carolina. Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina; Tom Foreman Jr. in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc
Emery P. Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio
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Note: The train was expected to stop at D.C.'s Union Station en route to New York.