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Killed trucker likely at fault
Did he try to beat the train at the crossing, or just not see it?
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published July 19, 2007
This marked railroad crossing in Plant City is just east of the private crossing where Michael Dale Hill was killed on Tuesday when his truck was hit by an Amtrak train.
[Skip O'Rourke | Times]
PLANT CITY - Investigators will probably never know why Michael Dale Hill pulled his truck into the path of an Amtrak passenger train Tuesday.
Maybe he never realized a train was coming. Or maybe, like a lot of people killed by trains, he misjudged its speed.
But on Wednesday, as crews repaired damaged tracks and removed the derailed train, officials said the collision that killed Hill appeared to be his fault.
"There's clear visibility in both directions," said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Larry Coggins. "According to witnesses, the train's whistle was blowing at the appropriate times prior to the crossing. These are people who work around there and hear the train whistles every day."
The 34-year-old Plant City man was driving his Mack truck over a private railroad crossing that has been there since the late 1950s. It has no bells, lights or dropping gates, and is marked by a standard X-shaped black-and-white "railroad crossing" sign.
These crossings are common: There are nearly 160 such private crossings in Hillsborough County, according to state transportation officials. Pinellas and Pasco counties, with fewer railroad tracks, have only about a dozen such crossings apiece.
Hill's truck was demolished by Amtrak's Silver Star, which zips through that area daily at up to 79 mph. It's the only passenger train that serves the Tampa area. Its two engines and nine railcars slid off the tracks, and 20 of 133 passengers and 11 crew members went to hospitals with minor injuries.
Hill was hauling building materials away from a business called Universal Structures off U.S. 92 in Plant City about a mile south of Interstate 4. "He was leaving a business he frequents often," said Coggins.
Hill's family described him as a good husband and father. Relatives declined to comment further.
Hill's death followed a similar crash Monday in Lakeland, in which a driver ignored a warning gate, and four people died.
Nationwide, about half of train-vehicle crashes happen at crossings with devices like gates and lights, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The other half occur at crossings with the X-shaped "crossbuck" signs. The main cause: Drivers try to beat the train.
"Because of their size and mass, trains typically appear to be farther away and traveling more slowly than they really are," said agency spokesman Warren Flatau. "It can take a half-mile to a mile for a train to stop."
After Tuesday's accident, repair crews worked through the night to clean up 800-1,000 gallons of locomotive diesel fuel and to replace about 1,000 feet of damaged rail, said Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX Railroad, which owns the tracks.
On Wednesday, two locomotives slowly pushed the damaged train away, and Amtrak bused local passengers to Orlando to catch the Silver Star there.
The tracks were ready by Wednesday evening, Sease said.
Nationally, safety improvements at crossings and driver education have resulted in a sharp drop in crashes - from 12,126 in 1975 to 2,918 in 2006, according to federal statistics.
But drivers' impatience remains a problem. A Northwestern University study found that four out of five deaths at gated crossings occur because drivers ignore warning devices.
"In today's society where everybody's in such a rush to get where they're going, people might not want to take the time to sit and wait for the train to go by," said James A. Andrews, the Tampa Bay district's railroad administrator for the state Transportation Department.
Some drivers may not know that passenger trains tend to go faster than slow-moving freights, or may assume from experience that no train crosses at a particular time. "If the tracks are there, a train can come through at any time," he said.
Staff writer S.I. Rosenbaum contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.