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Shock, then panic as Miami-bound Amtrak train strikes dump truck

This news story was published on December 1, 2012.
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Crews unload luggage, in background, Thursday, November 29, 2012, after a Miami-bound Amtrak passenger train struck and killed a truck driver at the intersection of Orange Avenue and Nela Avenue in Orlando, Florida.

By Desiree Stennett, Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Joe Dorrity of Newark, N.J., was sleeping next to his father on an Amtrak train from New York to Florida when he was awakened by a sudden, violent jolt.

The passenger train had struck a dump truck, killing the truck driver, at an intersection south of Orlando. The collision toppled Dorrity’s father, who was in a wheelchair, and sent fellow passengers into hysterics.

“Everybody was in shock at first; then panic started setting in,” Dorrity said. “They were crying. They just couldn’t believe they saw the whole thing.”

Seeram Matadial of Orlando was behind the wheel of the truck. The 44-year-old driver was headed westbound hauling a load of rocks at about 11:07 a.m. EST when he was struck by the train. Matadial’s body was thrown about 150 feet from the impact zone. He was killed instantly.

The impact of the collision was so great that Matadial’s dump truck was split in two. The trailer was disconnected from the cab and sent flying about 100 feet from the crash, said Sgt. Kim Montes, a Florida Highway Patrol spokeswoman.

“All you could see was smoke on the side and truck parts on both sides (of the train),” Dorrity said. “The axle was on the left side, and the body was on the left side as well. He looked lifeless.”

Florida Highway Patrol troopers estimated the train had been traveling about 60 mph — 10 mph below the posted train speed limit. The collision occurred at an uncontrolled intersection near an industrial park.

Switching equipment on the train tracks was damaged in the crash, and Steve Olson, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation, said the speed limit for Amtrak trains and freight trains moving through the area south of Orlando will be reduced to about 10 mph until the equipment is repaired Friday.

SunRail officials say flashing lights and crossing arms are supposed to be installed at that intersection in the spring. Those improvements are in the design phase now, Olson said. The entire system is being upgraded for the $1.2 billion commuter train set to open in 2014.

Authorities said 140 passengers and 13 crew members were aboard the 10-car train traveling to Miami. Two crew members were hurt, but it is unclear whether they were transported to hospitals, said Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds.

At least 15 passengers were treated and assessed at the scene for minor injuries, according to Orange County Fire Rescue spokesman John Mulhall. Ten of those were transported to local hospitals as a precaution, officials said.

At least 50 fire-rescue workers and 50 law-enforcement officers were sent to the scene.

Witness told investigators that Matadial ignored the stop sign posted near the tracks and drove into the path of the train.

There is signage warning of the railroad crossing at that point in the road but no arm bars or other signals to warn drivers when a train is near. The Florida Department of Transportation owns the stretch of track there, Montes said.

“Not every train intersection is signalized,” Montes said. “There is a stop sign that requires drivers to stop and look both ways before crossing.”

The intersection is not well-traveled, she added.

Fernando Rodriguez was working at a boat shop near the crash site Thursday morning when he heard a loud noise and saw a cloud of smoke rise from the scene. He and a co-worker ran to the scene and found the truck ripped apart. Rodriguez called 911, and he and his co-workers put up a stop sign to help warn drivers.

“It looked like the truck was made of Legos,” he said. “Everything was spread across the road.”

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