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Freight Trains Crash Head-On; Two Men Dead, Three Missing

November 12, 1993

KELSO, Wash. (AP) _ Two freight trains slammed into each other Thursday, flinging cars in the air, a fireball into the midnight sky, and thousands of gallons of flaming diesel fuel all around.

A crewman’s body was found near the wreckage of the two trains, which were pulling more than 80 cars each and traveling at least 40 mph when they collided head-on just south of this southwest Washington town. A second body was pulled from the cooling wreckage Thursday evening; three other crew members were unaccounted for.

″The train just started tumbling and flying straight up in the air. It was horrible, just horrible,″ said Randy Pinson, who was northbound on Interstate 5 less than a quarter-mile away when the trains collided.

The accident, which occurred shortly after midnight, ″lit up the sky and gave us a backdrop to see,″ he said.

Rail cars ″went straight up in the air, at least 100 feet straight up,″ said John McGanney, who was traveling with Pinson.

Washington State Patrol trooper Dean Burt, working nearby, reported ″the biggest ball of fire you could imagine - a mushroom and a big ball of flames.″

Rescue teams with search dogs waited until about 8 a.m. for the wreckage to cool before approaching the crushed, burned-out engines. As early morning fog lifted, a helicopter searched the area for signs of the crew members.

The collision involved a southbound Burlington Northern train, en route from Everett to Portland, Ore., with five engines, 110 cars and a crew of three, and a northbound Union Pacific train, headed from North Platte, Neb., to Seattle with 83 cars, three locomotives and a two-member crew.

Railroad officials did not immediately release the crew members’ names. The body recovered at the scene was that of a Burlington Northern crew member.

More than 20 cars derailed, but none of the derailed cars were carrying hazardous materials, Cowlitz County Sheriff Brian Pedersen said.

Some cars and other debris were thrown into the southbound lanes of nearby Interstate 5, and the freeway was closed for several hours.

About 10,000 gallons of fuel were spilled by the eight locomotive engines, but about half of it burned off.

A Federal Railway Administration crew was dispatched to investigate the cause of the accident and a National Transportation Safety Board team was en route from Washington, D.C., officials said.

The accident’s cause was not immediately determined.

The track has an automated electronic signal system to control traffic, said Ed Trandahl, a Union Pacific spokesman at railroad headquarters in Omaha, Neb. Burlington Northern spokesman Gus Melonas said the track and signals, owned and operated by BN, are inspected almost daily.

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