By David Kapitan
WILLS POINT–Residents of Wills Point received a rude wake up call on Thursday morning, as a fiery collision between a Union Pacific train and a disabled tractor-trailer sparked numerous explosions.
According to multiple reports, a tanker truck hauling fuel was traveling through the Wills Point area shortly after 1 a.m.
Prompted by a parked, westbound facing Union Pacific train blocking multiple railroad crossings, the driver elected to travel to the eastern portion of the city to cross the railroad tracks at the unblocked Lybrand crossing.
The tanker truck became disabled, either through a mechanical breakdown or by being hung up on the tracks, while an eastbound train swept through the city on a collision course.
The driver of the tanker truck attempted to move his vehicle while policemen on the scene attempted to flag down the train to throw on its brakes.
The tanker truck driver, and others in the area, took cover to avoid the accident area. At around 1:15 a.m., the train, which included 101 cars carrying “mixed freight,” collided with the tractor-trailer, triggering a series of 4-5 explosions.
No one at the scene, including the conductor and engineer aboard the train, suffered injuries. Fire departments representing every city in the county, police officers, state troopers, and Union Pacific officials swarmed the scene to limit the damage.
Evacuations were announced in the area surrounding the accident scene as firefighters and emergency workers attempted to determine the contents of the burning train cars.
During the cleanup process, Raquel Espinoza, Director of Corporate Relations and Media for UP, stated, “Right now, we are supporting the efforts of the fire department. Once all the fires have been addressed, we’ll assess the damage.”
Although not the primary cause of Thursday’s events, a nearly decade long complaint of Wills Point city leaders, railroad siding, was brought back to the forefront by the accident.
Railroad siding, which refers to a stretch of track used to allow trains on the same line to pass one another, has been a major headache to city officials and emergency personnel because of the length of time that trains are parked in the city, dividing the northern and southern parts.
Wills Point Mayor Deby Frye, who spent much of Thursday meeting with representatives from all concerned parties, stated, “We still have to meet with more officials from Union Pacific, but I’m confident that this will make Union Pacific expedite siding projects.”
As recently as August 22, Frye and Union Pacific Director of Public Affairs Clint Schelbitzki, had exchanged a series of e-mails about the subject.
On August 21, Frye wrote:
“We have a couple of issues that I’m hoping you can help us with. I am disappointed that there has been no progress on the new siding west of us. A UP rep had visited the city office in May and said construction would begin in June with an August completion date. That leads us to our current problems. We have trains that are blocking us from 45 minutes to 2 hours waiting for Amtrak to run through. I just got off the phone with dispatch in Omaha because we had all but one crossing blocked (Lybrand – the most inaccessible to through traffic) until all our streets were jammed with cars and semis. I was told there was a “track problem” west of Terrell. When this happens Clint, we are virtually cut off from north/south traffic. That in turn brings us to a complete stop with traffic, fire protection, ambulance service and police protection.”
On August 22, Clint Schelbitzki replied:
“It appears that we had most of our sidings on the east-west T&P route tied up yesterday as well. When there is congestion like this, we do not have any other options other than to use the available sidings to hold trains. I understand the frustration, but hopefully these cases will be minimized in the future. I have also contacted our operations (Scott said you left him a message) and our dispatching center regarding this and to give them a reminder about school traffic.
Regarding the siding, we have started the project and are now waiting on AT&T to relocate their fiberoptic cables that run along our right of way. Unfortunately, we can not do anything until this has occurred. I am told they will work on it in September, but I have not been given a finish date.”
On August 22, Frye responded:
“Thanks for replying. I understand things happen occasionally that cannot be avoided. However, for us, it is more than frustrating. Our first concern is children that may try to cross without realizing that another train can come through. When the trains sit for such extended periods of time it can create the thought that there is no danger. Additionally, semi trucks try to avert the congestion by using a crossing that is not meant for, nor will it accommodate them and that creates a traffic nightmare. So secondly, our emergency service folks are trapped on one or the other side of town. So, hopefully the progress with AT&T will be rapid and the siding project can proceed quickly.”
The tanker truck, driven by Charles Cecil Smith, 47, of Sulphur Springs, is owned by Gemini Trucking out of Oklahoma City, Ok.
Union Pacific Railroad arrived on scene at 6:45 a.m. to clean up and had the train removed and rails repaired. By early afternoon, trains were back using the tracks. At press time, however, Lybrand Street was still closed.
Information about the train, tractor-trailer collision was not received until after the August 24 edition of the Wills Point Chronicle went to press, Updates with the latest information were posted throughout the day on the Facebook pages of the Wills Point Chronicle and Van Zandt News.
A complete recap of the accident will be published in the August 31 edition of the Wills Point Chronicle.