DALLAS (AP) — Wreckage from a train collision continued to smolder Wednesday in the Texas Panhandle as workers prepared to remove the charred, twisted box cars from the tracks and renew their search for three missing crew members.
The three BNSF Railway crew members have been missing since Tuesday morning, when two freight trains traveling on the same track collided head-on about 25 miles northeast of Amarillo.
A fourth crew member jumped from one of the trains prior to the collision Tuesday and was hospitalized in stable condition with injuries not considered life-threatening, said Sgt. Dan Buesing of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
One train was en route to Los Angeles and the other to Chicago, BNSF spokesman Joe Faust said Wednesday.
Authorities have said the trains’ diesel fuel fed the flames for hours, and KFDA-TV in Amarillo reported hot spots continued to flare Wednesday. The flames had prevented crews from searching the wreckage for the three missing crew members, Buesing said.
Freight cars and containers were derailed and strewn for about 400 yards from the collision site just outside the town of Panhandle, Buesing said. Floodlights were brought in overnight to aid emergency workers trying to quell the flames and start the search for the missing, he said.
It’s not clear how fast the trains were traveling when they collided, but the speed limit in that area is 70 mph, Faust said. It also wasn’t clear why the trains were on the same track. The rail cars were holding a variety of consumer goods, Faust said.
“I don’t know how anyone survived,” said Billy Brown, a farmer in the area who saw a fireball after the collision. “It’s terrible. I’ve seen a number of train wrecks but I’ve never seen one like this.”
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the NTSB has opened an investigation, and the Federal Railroad Administration said it has investigators on site.
BNSF has pledged to meet a 2018 federal deadline to adopt technology, called positive train control or PTC, that relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and automatically slow or stop trains that are in danger of colliding, derailing due to excessive speed or about to enter track where crews are working or that is otherwise off limits. At least three freight railroads have said they’ll need an extension to 2020.
Faust said in a statement later Tuesday that the West Texas collision is the type of accident PTC can prevent and that BNSF is “aggressively” pursuing it “across our network.”
“While sections of the track operated by the eastbound train involved in this accident have PTC installed and are being tested, the section of track where the incident occurred will be installed later this year,” he said in the statement.
It’s not unusual to have an accident in the Panhandle involving a truck that’s struck by a freight train, Buesing said, but the magnitude of Tuesday’s accident was startling.
Officials in the town of Panhandle ordered an evacuation of some nearby areas out of concern the flames would cause a fast-moving grass fire, the Amarillo Globe-News reported, but Buesing said that residents later returned to their homes and were told to shelter in place and monitor wind conditions. Officials also asked residents to curtail water use because the water supply is being depleted by firefighters at the scene, according to KVII-TV in Amarillo.
Tuesday’s accident is at least the second in recent years involving BNSF trains striking one another. In September 2013, three were involved in a wreck near Amarillo that injured five crew members, according to an NTSB report. The federal agency in that incident faulted the crew in one train for improperly proceeding past a signal and striking the rear of a stationary train, and cars that derailed were then struck by a train passing in the opposite direction.
Associated Press writers Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, and Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.