A huge truck with a state trooper escort was stuck in a crossing with time enough to warn the railroad of trouble, but no one told the New York City-bound Amtrak passenger train before a crash that injured 55 people, officials said.
The train was coming around a curve when the oversized truck — packed with electrical equipment — couldn't get through the angled crossing. The driver also couldn't easily back up, because cars behind it left no room, officials said.
"There's a phone number right there at the intersection on a big blue sign, that says if you got a problem, here's the number and within a minute, they can contact any traffic on the rail and tell them to stop," North Carolina Transportation Secretary Tony Tata told the Durham, North Carolina, TV station WTVD.
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The State Highway Patrol, which had at least one trooper accompanying the oversized load, said it spent about five minutes trying to negotiate the railroad crossing before the crash at about noon on Monday.
But Kevin Thompson, associate administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in a statement Tuesday that witnesses saw the truck and trailer occupy the crossing for 15 to 20 minutes.
Amber Keeter, who was in her car directly behind the tractor-trailer before impact, said she watched the driver struggle back and forth for "probably a good 15, 20 minutes."
She told WTVD that she had asked someone involved if they were seeking help before the crash.
"I asked him, 'can you get anybody on the radio?' He said, 'No, I can't'," Keeter said. "And I asked him, 'are you guys going to be able to stop the train?' He said, 'I don't think so.'"
The number on the sign reaches the CSX Railroad; callers are asked to press 1 to report an emergency "such as a vehicle on the tracks."
CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay wouldn't say if anyone called before the crash. "That's all going to be part of the investigation," she said Tuesday.
Thompson said wrecked equipment had been removed and the tracks reopened about 15 hours after the noon Monday crash, and that CSX was making repairs to safety equipment at the crossing.
Most people who were treated at hospitals have been released.
Monday's collision was the third serious train crash in less than two months. Crashes in New York and California in February killed a total of seven people and injured 30. The Federal Railroad Administration, which is leading the crash investigation, is continuing to interview witnesses and review onboard recorders from the train in the North Carolina crash.
The modular building being hauled was "an electrical distribution center" being taken from Clayton, North Carolina, to New Jersey, said Lt. Jeff Gordon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
One of the troopers escorting the truck was trying to help the driver negotiate the difficult left-hand turn across the tracks onto a two-lane highway, Gordon said. But the 164-foot tractor-trailer combination couldn't navigate it, he said.
Gordon said the truck driver had to reposition his trailer and back up to attempt the turn a second time by making a wider swing through the intersection. But traffic backed up behind the truck prevented it from backing off the tracks.
The northbound train originated in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was bound for New York. As it approached, it set off warning flashers and the crossing arms came down, prompting the driver to flee.
"I saw him jump out of the truck when he knew he couldn't beat it. ... I heard the train noise and thought, 'Oh, my God, it's going to happen,'" said eyewitness Leslie Cipriani, who used her cellphone to shoot video of the crash.
The truck driver, identified as John Devin Black of Claremont, was not injured. Authorities identified the train conductor, Keenan Talley of Raleigh, as among the injured.
Gordon said the tractor-trailer is owned by Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro, North Carolina. A statement on the company's website, later removed, said the company's thoughts and prayers were with the injured. The company did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Hours after the crash, about a dozen of the train's 212 passengers began boarding a bus to Richmond, Virginia, where they had the option of getting on another train.
"We're just thankful that we're still alive. It could have been really worse. God was really with us," said Lisa Carson, 50, of Philadelphia.
Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official who teaches railway management at Michigan State University, looked at the crossing on Google Maps and said the curve of the railroad heading toward the intersection would have made it hard for the engineer to see up ahead, or for the truck driver to see down the track.
"This is also known as a bad geometry crossing," he said.