RALEIGH, N.C. — A truck with an oversized load and a state trooper escort was stuck in a railroad crossing with time enough to alert approaching trains, but there's no indication Amtrak was warned before a crash that injured 55 people, officials said.
An eyewitness told The Associated Press that the tractor-trailer — which stretched for 164 feet, longer than half a football field — spent about 8 minutes stuck on the railroad tracks. The State Highway Patrol said the trooper spent about 5 minutes trying to help clear the tracks.
In any case, the truck driver and trooper apparently failed to follow the clearly established protocol, which requires staying in contact with train dispatchers during these trips, a former Federal Railroad Administration official said Tuesday.
Amber Keeter, 19, was stuck in traffic in her car with her baby directly behind the tractor-trailer. She told the AP that the truck driver, his assistant in a flag car and a trooper spent about 15 to 20 minutes trying to negotiate the left turn across the tracks at the intersection of highways U.S. 301 and N.C. 903 in Halifax County, North Carolina.
"It was so long they couldn't make the turn," she said.
She rolled down her window and asked the flag man if he could call someone to stop the trains, "and he said he didn't think so," she said.
Then, "the railroad lights started blinking, and so the tractor-trailer driver tried to gun it forward," she said. "By that time, the train had hit the tractor-trailer."
The driver jumped out "just a couple of seconds before," she said.
Proper protocol calls for troopers escorting trucks to "clear their routes and inform the railroad dispatchers what they're doing," said Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official who teaches railway management at Michigan State University.
Even if they lose contact with the dispatcher during the trip, the 1-800 number on the pole that holds the flashing lights reaches a CSX dispatcher, he said.
"That dispatcher would have immediately put up a red signal for Amtrak and radioed Amtrak to stop," he said.
Truckers and troopers should know the protocol, and these 1-800 numbers have been posted for decades. But in this case, the train engineer "didn't know about the truck until he was coming around a curve. He had no long vision," Ditmeyer said.
CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay wouldn't say if anyone called before the crash. "That's all going to be part of the investigation," she said.
Most people treated at hospitals were released by Tuesday, and about a dozen of the train's 212 passengers had already continued their journey by bus to Richmond, Virginia, where they could take another train.
"We're just thankful that we're still alive. It could have been really worse. God was really with us," said Lisa Carson, 50, of Philadelphia.
The Federal Railroad Administration's database shows at least five previous collisions at the same Halifax crossing, all involving vehicles on the tracks. The most recent was in 2005, when a freight train hit a truck's "utility trailer." In 1977, an Amtrak train hit a car at 70 mph. The driver got out in time, but a railroad employee was injured, that accident report said.
Monday's collision was the third serious train crash in less than two months. Crashes in New York and California in February killed a total of seven people and injured 30.
The Federal Railroad Administration is continuing to interview witnesses and will review onboard recorders from the train in Monday's crash. The agency's associate administrator, Kevin Thompson, said the tracks reopened about 15 hours later, and that CSX was repairing the crossing's safety equipment.
The modular building was "an electrical distribution center" being hauled from Clayton, North Carolina, to New Jersey, said Lt. Jeff Gordon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
Gordon said the truck driver tried to back up to make a second attempt with a wider swing to cross the tracks, but there was too much traffic behind it.
The approach of the New York-bound train from Charlotte, North Carolina, set off warning lights and the crossing arms came down, prompting the driver to flee.
"I saw him jump out of the truck when he knew he couldn't beat it. ... I heard the train noise and thought, 'Oh, my God, it's going to happen,'" said eyewitness Leslie Cipriani, who recorded the crash on her cellphone.
The truck driver, John Devin Black of Claremont, escaped without injury, but the conductor, Keenan Talley of Raleigh, was among the injured.
Gordon said the tractor-trailer is owned by Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro. The company did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Raleigh and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report