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2 Kids Die As Train Hits School Bus

March 28, 2000

TENNGA, Ga. (AP) _ A freight train hauling automobiles tore a school bus off its wheels in a collision at an unprotected rural crossing early Tuesday, killing two children and critically injuring five.

The train dragged the bus’ battered yellow body about 100 yards. Some of the children were thrown to the gravel beside the tracks. Others were found bloodied inside.

It ``sounded like ... thunder or a bomb blown up,″ said Joe Brown, who lives about 300 feet from the crossing. He said he found his best friend’s daughter among the dead.

John Watson, whose two sons had missed the bus that morning, arrived with the first emergency workers and helped pull one badly injured girl from the wreckage. ``I was shocked that she was still alive,″ he said.

The crash is raising questions once again about the safety of rural, grade-level crossings.

The one-lane crossing, just across the state line in Tennessee, had no warning lights or crossing arms, and the tracks curve through pine trees in hilly terrain, making it difficult to spot trains from the road.

It was unclear if the driver stopped at the tracks _ Georgia law requires school buses to stop at least 15 feet from the tracks before crossing _ or took other precautions, such as opening the doors to listen for a train.

The engineer told the Tennessee Highway Patrol he ``blew his whistle, saw the bus approach the crossing, continued to blow his whistle and put the train in emergency stop, but was unable to stop before striking the bus,″ Trooper Ken Uselton said.

Killed were Kayla Silvers, 6, and Daniel Pack, 9.

The driver, Rhonda Cloer, 34, was listed in fair condition. Of the five injured children, ages 5 to 9, three were listed in critical condition, and two were upgraded to serious. The driver’s 5-year-old daughter Kayli was among the injured. No one on the train was injured.

Cloer was driving her regular route for the Murray County school system, picking up children to take them to Northwest Elementary School north of Chatsworth. The bus had just crossed into Polk County, Tenn., to turn around when it was struck about 6:30 a.m.

The train _ a 32-car CSX freight hauling Chevy Blazers _ spun the bus around, tore its body tore off its chassis and dragged the wreckage back into Georgia.

Kate Pannell, personnel director for Murray County schools, said she knew of no previous accidents on the driver’s record. She said the woman had been driving for the district for about three years.

Residents said the bus driver seemed conscientious.

``Every time that lady has come through there, that bus has stopped at that road,″ Edward Watson said. Searching for explanations, he said: ``It is hard to see a train coming, and if you have children on the bus, even if the train had blowed its horn, she may not have even heard it.″

Several residents faulted the lack of a warning signal. ``That’s where the blame lies,″ Watson said.

Each day, about 150 cars pass over that crossing, and 13 trains pass the intersection at about 60 mph, said Luanne Grandinetti, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Of the 3,424 railroad crossings in the state, 61 percent are ``passive,″ meaning there is a warning sign, but no lights or gate. Electronic warning systems are only required at crossing where more than 100 cars cross each day, there is regular school bus and train traffic and a fatal accident has happened.

The crossing now appears to meet all those requirements, Grandinetti said. She said some sort of warning system would be installed.

It would cost $10 billion to erect warning lights and gates at the 85,000 highway-rail crossings in the United States that do not have them, said Gerri Hall, president of Operation Lifesaver Inc., a nonprofit agency in Alexandria, Va., that promotes traffic safety.

``We don’t have that kind of money in the federal coffers or anyone’s pocket waiting to be spent,″ she said, adding that half of all vehicle-train accidents occur at crossings that have warning lights and guard arms.

Accidents between trains and highway vehicles have dropped nearly 90 percent since 1972, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Murray County, with about 31,000 people, is a blue-collar manufacturing area dependent on carpet mills in nearby Dalton.

Northwest Elementary maintained its regular class schedule Tuesday. Three counselors were at the school.

Veronica Ownby, who lives about a quarter-mile from the accident scene, said her grandson, 7-year-old Zachary Matthews, rides the bus in the afternoons, but she drives him to school in the mornings.

``He’s upset over all his little buddies,″ she said.

___

On the Net: Federal Railroad Administration: http://www.fra.dot.gov/o/safety/index.htm

Tennessee Department of Transportation: http://www.tdot.state.tn.us/

Georgia Department of Transportation: http://www.dot.state.ga.us/

Operation Lifesaver Inc.: http://www.oli.org

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