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CSX Vitis, FL Head-on Collision  

CSX Vitis, FL

Story from Tampa Tribune

RICHLAND - Living next door to railroad tracks along Old Lakeland Highway for six years, Karla and Michael Scheiern got used to their noisy neighbor.

What they heard at 2:11 a.m. Monday, though, was chilling. ``It was a loud bang. We jumped up,'' Karla Scheiern said. In foggy darkness, the couple went to investigate.

``We saw the train on the tracks and the cars just kept piling up hitting each other. My husband saw a big hole in the side of one of the tankers. He ran [back] inside and called 911.''

When Pasco County emergency personnel responded, they discovered the first head- on train collision in Florida since 1992. Two CSX Transportation Inc. workers were trapped in the rubble and two more were injured when a southbound freight train from Waycross, Ga., collided with a northbound train carrying aggregate rock from Miami.

C.J. Jones, 28, of Carol City, the northbound train's conductor, jumped from the locomotive before the crash and was killed after being struck by a boxcar, co-workers and investigators said. Engineer E.E. Anderson, also of Carol City, survived his jump, but was reported to have broken bones. He was treated at East Pasco Medical Center in Zephyrhills and released.

The other train's crew, conductor W.E. Taylor of Bartow and engineer Gerald M. Whitehead II, 33, of Lake Butler, also were treated and released, hospital officials said.

Reached at home Monday, Whitehead's relatives said his injuries weren't life-threatening.

CSX officials wouldn't comment on how long Jones and the others had worked for the railroad or discuss their injuries. Locomotives are equipped with chairs for the conductor and engineer near the front, but the chairs lack seat belts.

The trains collided at Vitis Junction, along a main line between Zephyrhills and Dade City. At the junction, the line splits into routes leading to the Mulberry-Tampa area and Miami, CSX spokesman Gary Sease said.

The cause of the crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration.

Fifteen of the 136 boxcars pulled by two locomotives on the southbound train derailed. Two cars carried liquid nitrogen fertilizer, Sease said. About 23,000 gallons of fertilizer spilled into a drainage ditch adjacent to the tracks. One of 60 loads carried by the northbound train derailed.

Two environmental contractors worked at the scene to minimize the damage.

``It's not an inhalation hazard, but it's something we don't want to introduce into the water table,'' Sease said. ``It's the stuff contractors put on the ground, but it's in a high concentration.''

Air monitoring and soil testing were being conducted with oversight from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the county Department of Environmental Protection to ensure area drinking water wells are not affected.

Also being closely watched were fuel spills from the four locomotives, two on each train, and a boxcar on the southbound train that, while empty at the time of the crash, once carried an unidentified corrosive material that could pose an environmental risk, Sease said. One of two cars carrying Coors beer was ripped open during the crash.

Waking up to boxcars derailed outside her house and potential risks by hazardous cargo have Nicole Fournier thinking it's time to move. She and her 6-year-old daughter, Serena Tackett, live a few hundred feet from the railroad tracks.

``It's like these cars derailed in my driveway,'' she said. ``It woke me up in the middle of the night. You could hear people calling out.''

It may take weeks to sort out the cause, Sease said.

Computer data collected by the locomotives might hold answers. However, one of the four locomotives was flattened by a rear pile-up of boxcars and it wasn't clear whether data could be recovered, workers said.

The southbound train was traveling at 28 mph at the time of the crash, according to early data, Sease said. The speed limit for tracks governed by wayside signals, similar to traffic lights, is 50 mph.

It wasn't clear how long the track, which carries 25 trains daily, will be closed. Sease said rail traffic is being routed to the A Line in Orlando.

Old Lakeland Highway, from the U.S. 98 overpass to Otis Allen Road, and Berry Road at Merrick Road are expected to be closed for up to five days, except to local traffic.

In the 1992 head-on crash, which occurred near Tisonia in Duval County, three locomotives and 77 cars were involved. No one was injured, and authorities blamed environmental conditions.

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