Ponchatoula, LA Train and Auto Collision, Mar 2001


Ponchatoula, Louisiana - A Ponchatoula mother and three of her four sons died Thursday when she drove her compact car into the path of a northbound freight train.
LAWANDA JOHNSON, 30, was driving her burgundy 1988 Mazda 626 north on U.S. Highway 51 about 7:40 p.m. when she turned right at the Hoover Street railroad crossing. This was the same site where another Ponchatoula woman, whose first name was also Lawanda, died with her three toddlers and her neighbor when an Amtrak train slammed into their pickup truck in December 1995.
In both accidents, law enforcement
agents were left questioning why the drivers did not stop for the trains.
"We don't know what happened to the driver," Ponchatoula Police Chief Tim Gideon said. "The train, in the dark, should have been very visible, with lights on it and the whistle blowing. But for some reason that we don't know at this time, and may never know, is why the driver didn't hear, see or look for that."
The empty grain train heading to Illinois slammed into the passenger side of the small car pushing it about 1,847 feet before coming to a stop. JOHNSON was ejected about 800 feet from the car upon the train's impact.
The train was going well under the posted speed limit of 60 miles per hour, said Jack Burke, spokesman for Canadian National Illinois Central Railroad. A speed box similar to an airplane's black box was taken off the train to determine the exact speed of the train. No citation was issued to the train's engineer.
Tangipahoa Parish Coroner Dr. Rick Foster pronounced JOHNSON and two of her four children - MARCEL JOHNSON, 10, and MICAH JOHNSON, 7 -
dead at the scene. Her youngest son, MYLES JOHNSON, 4, died about two hours later at North Oaks Medical Center. Her oldest son, MYRON JOHNSON, 12, is listed in serious condition at North Oaks, Michelle Sutton, hospital spokeswoman, said this morning.
The family had recently moved from Independence to an apartment at 22046 Lakeside Circle.
This morning, a group of children waited for their school bus just a few feet from the fatal crash. Near the tracks, broken wood crosses and faded red flowers were left on the ground as a reminder of the 1995 crash.
"This scares me," said 12-year-old Dejean Beale. "Last year I saw two ladies get hit by the train. They were only hurt. Now this."
Beale said he heard the impact and stepped out his house a block away to watch the emergency crews work. Neighbor Brittney Savage, also 12, watched from her living room window. Her house is directly across from the crossing.
"It does make you scared," she agreed. "I heard it all and wished I hadn't"
At City Hall, Mayor Julian Dufreche met behind closed doors with city officials this morning.
"It's terrible that we have to go through this again," Dufreche said after the meeting. "It's frustrating that we haven't been able to get any type of funding for gates."
Ponchatoula police and railroad officials will continue the investigation later today.

Hammond Star Louisiana 2001-03-02