McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State news

June 25, 2012

3 missing after trains collide in rural Oklahoma

GOODWELL, Okla. — Two freight trains that collided in an Oklahoma wheat field weren’t blowing their horns or flashing their lights as they hurtled toward each other, according to long-haul trucker who watched helplessly from a highway as the locomotives collided head-on.

Three of the four crew members assigned to the trains were missing Monday, and investigators feared they couldn’t have survived the crash and tremendous fire.

The accident happened Sunday just after an eastbound Union Pacific train carrying mixed goods from Los Angeles to Chicago passed through the town of Goodwell at a good clip. A mile east of town, it hit a westbound Union Pacific train hauling cars and trucks.

The resulting diesel fireball seemed to merge tons of steel and spewed black smoke that could be seen for miles across the flat, arid landscape. One crew member suffered scrapes and bruises after jumping from the westbound train as it traveled alongside U.S. 54 about eight miles southwest of Guymon.

Long-distance truck driver Gary Mathews, hauling freight from Phoenix to Missouri, had been running evenly with the train at 68 mph and looked ahead to see another train on the same track.

“I was thinking, I’m going to see a train crash unless somebody does something,” Mathews, of Independence, Mo., said Monday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “They’re not blowing the horn to each other, blinking lights or whatever. I kept thinking, ‘This cannot happen, it cannot happen.”’

Federal investigators deployed to the scene said it would be late Monday before they could speculate on why the trains were on the same track. The Union Pacific railroad has sidings at Guymon and Goodwell but only a single track runs between the two communities about 330 miles northwest of Oklahoma City.

The National Transportation Safety Board planned an 8 p.m. news conference in Guymon.

Mathews said he often will travel evenly with trains to see how fast they are going. “I like to run with the trains,” he said.

Mathews said the westbound train slowed considerably before the crash, but the eastbound train was still traveling “65 or better” when the trains hit about 50 yards away from him.

“A blast of hot air came through the side glass, and it put a burn on you like you step out of an air-conditioned bar into 110 degrees, through the glass,” he said. “There was a ‘thud’ and it was over. Smoke was rolling. Smoke went up so high it was like a foundry on fire, and it was barreling straight up,” he recalled.

“After I seen it, the feeling went through me, it scared the tar out of me, and I didn’t stop until I reached Emporia” in Kansas, about 350 miles away. He was interviewed Sunday by the Guymon Daily Herald newspaper and reached Monday by the AP.

“I didn’t even stop,” Mathews said, as he recalled watching the unfolding seconds immediately after the crash in his rearview mirror.

Investigators hadn’t yet been able to search the wreckage for any bodies.

“They have to let the metal cool ... to see if they can get in there and find the bodies of the missing, and that may never happen,” said Betsy Randolph, a trooper with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

Firefighters did what they could to cool the freight cars, and a crew was dispatched from Fort Worth, Texas, to smother the flames with foam. The trains’ engines seemed to merge in the collision.

“It was a tangled, mangled burning mess,” Randolph said.

The United Transportation Union identified those aboard the trains as conductor Brian L. Stone, 50, of Dalhart, Texas; engineers Dan Hall and John Hall; and conductor Juan Zurita, who escaped virtually uninjured. The Halls are not related.

Trains are typically staffed by two workers, a conductor who directs train operations and an engineer who operates the train.

U.S 54, which runs alongside the track, was closed for a time. Eastbound lanes reopened Monday morning, but westbound traffic was diverted onto a 2- or 3-mile detour, Randolph said. Boxcars littered wheat fields surrounding the site.

NTSB member Mark Rosekind said at a news conference Monday morning that investigators would be on the scene the rest of the week.

“Our mission is not only to determine what happened, but why. It’s that why that allows us to make safety recommendations to prevent these kinds of accidents from occurring in the future,” Rosekind said.

Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange said the trains were equipped with data recorders, similar to those recovered following aircraft accidents.

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