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Trucker May Have Driven Around Warning Gates

March 19, 1999

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An eyewitness has told authorities that he saw a truck loaded with steel enter a railroad crossing despite flashing warning lights just before it was struck by an Amtrak train, reports the Associated Press. However, because of language problems, there were conflicting interpretations of the Spanish-speaking witness’s account about whether the warning gates were down.

The witness initially told Amtrak officials that he saw the warning lights flashing and the gates come down just before the train hit the truck Monday night in Bourbonnais, IL, killing 11 people and injuring more than 100 others when the train derailed. When the man was interviewed in more detail by the National Transportation Safety Board, conflicting reports arose. Although the report that the witness had seen the truck go around the gates was reported widely in the media Thursday night, yesterday NTSB officials said they are waiting for a transcript of their conversations before making any further statements about the witness’s account.
While the engineer originally was quoted as saying the truck driver had been trying to maneuver his rig through closed crossing gates, NTSB’s John Goglia said a full statement from the engineer will have to wait, since he has been sedated.
Driver John Stokes told investigators he couldn’t see the train coming and that the gates didn’t come down until after he started across the tracks. He has retained a lawyer, and a criminal investigation is under way. Tire tracks and damage to the tips of the crossing gates lend credence to the theory that he drove around the gates.
Stokes was driving on a probationary license after getting three speeding tickets in a year in Indiana. In all, the AP reports, he has been ticketed for speeding seven times since 1993 and had to take two safety classes last year to keep his license.

Melco Transfer, the company that employed Stokes, is undergoing a safety inspection by the Federal Highway Administration in the wake of the tragedy.

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