Shafter, CA Train And Minivan Collision, Dec 2001



Shafter, Calif. - An Amtrak train traveling 80 mph slammed into a minivan carrying farm workers Wednesday afternoon, scattering bodies and debris along a half-mile of track. All seven people in the van were killed.
"The van just exploded into pieces," said California Highway Patrol Officer Greg Williams. "It looked like a crushed can."
None of the victims were identified by authorities. Local residents said several of the victims were from the same family and were on their way to Shafter.
Laurie Rivera, who was friends with the minivan's driver, said the men, all in their 20s and 30s worked at a Shafter almond orchard.
Four of the dead lived in Bakersfield, two in Shafter and one in Wasco, which is northwest of Shafter. The van's driver was a father of two teenage sons and native of Guerrero, Mexico, she said.
"He was a good person, happy-go-lucky every time," Rivera said.
"My whole body went numb when I found out."
The cause of the accident was not immediately determined, but officials said warning lights and bells were working at the rural crossing about 20 miles northwest of Bakersfield.
"We don't know, but the driver may have been trying to beat the train," Williams said.
Officials said none of the 82 passengers and 10 crew members aboard Amtrak 714 were injured. Most of the passengers were later bused to Los Angeles, their destination.
The train, which was going from Oakland to Bakersfield, was rolling south through the nut orchards and cotton fields surrounding Shafter when it struck the van at Poplar Avenue and California 43 about 4:15 p.m. Shafter is about 130 miles north of Los Angeles.
Sparks flew as the engineer applied emergency brakes, but the train and wreckage of the minivan skidded for a half-mile before coming to a stop.
Two occupants of the van were thrown out, the other five died in the wreckage.
The train remained at the crash site into the night as local and Federal Railroad Administration investigators tried to determine how the accident happened.
Two witnesses described loud screeching and bells ringing loudly as train and van careened down the rails. Porfidio Hernandez, 20, and Ryan Whitbey, 22, ran to where the train and minivan finally came to rest near Mayer Street.
"I saw the driver in the passenger seat ... I tried to get him out, but I couldn't open the door," Hernandez said. "It was a collage of metal and bodies."
Floodlights cast an eerie glow over the scene Wednesday night as coroner's deputies removed the bodies from the mangled Ford Aerostar. Small groups of residents gathered to watch as emergency crews worked late into the night.
Officials said the single track through Shafter probably would remained blocked until this morning, and Amtrak traffic is not expected to resume until this afternoon.
After waiting several hours at the crash site, the Amtrak passengers were bused to Bakersfield. Those continuing on to Los Angeles rode buses because Amtrak doesn't provide rail service over the Tehachapi Mountains.
Shortly before 10 p.m., the bus arrived at Union Station with passengers looked dazed and weary. Many had long nights ahead as they prepared for the next leg of their journey.
Frances Olvera, 54, of Patterson said she had been dozing but was awakened by the crash. She saw what looked like a door flying past her window.
"The van looked like a piece of tin stuck on the front of the train," said Olvera, who was headed to Tucson to visit her parents. "It was horrible."

Los Angeles Times California 2001-12-13