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At least 40 hurt in Amtrak-big rig crash in California

At least 42 passengers were taken to Valley hospitals Monday, October 1, 2012, when a big rig truck collided with a southbound Amtrak train near Hanford, California, authorities said.

By Tim Sheehan and Robert Rodriguez, The Fresno Bee –

HANFORD, Calif. — An Amtrak train bound for Bakersfield collided Monday with a big rig at a rural crossing in Kings County, Calif., injuring at least 40 passengers and stranding scores more in an alfalfa field south of Hanford.

The force of the collision knocked two double-deck cars and the engine that was pushing them off their tracks, leaving passengers to grip tables or seats as the cars toppled. The train, the San Joaquin 712 with four cars, was carrying 169 passengers, according to Amtrak.

At least 40 passengers were taken to hospitals in Hanford, Visalia, Tulare, Corcoran, Selma and Fresno. All the injuries were minor, said Dan Lynch, Kings County Emergency Medical Services director.

The big rig’s driver was pinned inside his shattered cab for about an hour, emergency officials said. Investigators did not immediately know the driver’s name or age or the extent of his injuries, but California Highway Patrol Officer Jerry Pierce said the driver reportedly received moderate injuries.

The collision happened about 12:20 p.m. on the BNSF Railway freight tracks at Kansas Avenue. The train came to a halt a half-mile south of the crossing. The San Joaquin 712 train had left Hanford’s Amtrak station just a few minutes earlier, Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said.

Investigators concluded the truck struck the train, causing it to derail, the CHP said Monday night. Witnesses told investigators the automated gates at the crossing were down, signaling traffic to stop.

The truck was hauling a load of cotton trash — the stuff left over after the ginning process — west on Kansas Avenue. The impact demolished the cab of the truck and overturned the rig on the tracks. Small pieces of truck debris were visible hundreds of yards south of the crossing.

On board the train, Catherine Wagar was riding in the upper level of a rail car on her way home to Los Angeles when “it felt like something big had slammed the … car, just below the one I was riding in. Then I felt the train begin to move to the side.”

Wagar said to herself, “ ‘Oh no,’ and I grabbed the table until the train stopped.”

Passengers were evacuated from the train onto an adjacent alfalfa field, where paramedics tended to the injured before they were taken to local hospitals, said Pierce. Most of the passengers who were not hurt were taken by school buses to the Hanford Civic Auditorium to await pickup by their families or to board Amtrak buses to continue their journey south.

At the auditorium, Amtrak passengers talked about their experience as they waited for buses to carry them to their destinations.

Passenger Mary Lopez was in the lower level of a two-tier car returning home to Hemet in Southern California after visiting her daughter and granddaughter in Fresno when she saw a big dust cloud and heard something scraping the side of the train.

The rail car began leaning, “and then I thought, ‘Oh … what’s happening?’ ” she said. “I don’t normally cuss, but I was scared.”

Wagar, deacon at the Episcopal Church of St. Philip the Evangelist in Los Angeles, said a young girl sitting in front of her was crying hysterically. Wagar said she did her best to try to calm the girl down.

Inside the car, the scene was chaotic, Wagar said, with people trying to get out. All she could see was a haze in the air, and dirt and debris and some kind of crop — possibly cotton — in the bottom of the car.

Once things calmed down, passengers were very helpful, Wagar said.

Edmund Sanders of Los Angeles, who several passengers credited for helping others get off the train safely, wasn’t supposed to be on the train. Sanders had been visiting his fiancee in Fresno and was planning to take the Greyhound back home, but missed his bus. He was in one of the middle cars.

“Right after it happened, I see all these people with a terrified look on their faces, all trying to get to the front of the train,” said Sanders, an Office Depot manager. “I tried as best I could to try and calm people down and help them get off that train. I really think that God had his hands on that train today.”

Initially, passengers were concerned for relatives and their possessions, but once triage started it was clear there were no serious injuries, said Dave Putnam, Kings County assistant sheriff.

He said all on-duty deputies were assigned to the crash, and no serious crime was reported when they were on scene.

Most of the injured had cuts, bruises or complained of pain, he said. A few others had limbs “splinted up” in case they had fractures, he said.

A helicopter was on standby to remove the injured, but was not needed, Putnam said.

The CHP said BNSF crews were working through the night to repair the tracks and clear the derailed train. The line is not expected to reopen until at least 4 a.m. Tuesday.

This is not the first collision between a train and a truck at the location of the crash. In May 2008, 33 people suffered minor injuries when an Amtrak train was struck by a truck carrying lemons.

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