PORTLAND, MAINE – Investigators are examining a trucker’s cell phone records, GPS and other electronic equipment to try to figure out why his tractor-trailer hauling more than 20 tons of garbage failed to stop in time to avoid a deadly collision with an Amtrak train in southern Maine, officials said Tuesday.
Witness accounts and 200 feet of skid marks leading to the point of impact at a crossing in North Berwick make it clear the driver tried to stop, but investigators want to know why he didn’t stop soon enough.
The trucker, Peter Barnum, 35, of Farmington, N.H., was killed in Monday’s collision with Amtrak’s Downeaster 40 miles south of Portland. Four passengers and two Amtrak crew members were injured, none seriously.
“The driver obviously applied his brakes,” said Stephen McCausland of the Maine Department of Public Safety. “The question is now why didn’t he stop quick enough. That’s an answer we don’t have at the moment.”
Triumvirate Environmental said it hired Barnum in April and that its records indicated he had a clear driving record for the past two years. Barnum had been a commercial driver for 10 years, and the truck was properly inspected, the company said.
He had received two speeding tickets over the years in Maine, according to the Secretary of State’s office. One ticket was for going 77 mph in a 55 mph zone in 1995, and the other was for driving 63 mph in a 45 mph zone, according to spokeswoman Caitlin Chamberlain. New Hampshire driving records weren’t available.
One of the Amtrak Downeaster’s passengers likened the impact felt when the train hit the rig at 70 mph to a commercial plane making a hard landing, followed by a fireball that the entire train passed through.
Some of the 112 passengers were bewildered after the train came to a bumpy stop. One of the four passenger cars left the tracks.
“You knew something terrible had happened, something completely wrong. Then it dawns on you that we probably hit something. It didn’t take long to figure out that whatever we hit was probably quite large,” said David O’Toole of suburban Cincinnati, who was returning from New Hampshire to his summer home in Wells.
The locomotive, which caught fire, was separated from the five passenger cars by the jolt of the impact, officials clarified Tuesday, contrary to initial reports that the engineer hopped out and manually separated the burning engine from the passenger cars.
O’Toole said the two conductors calmly moved passengers to the rear, away from the fire. One of the conductors was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation.
Outside, firefighters battled brush fires and used a blue tarp to cover the body of the truck driver, which was in a field, he said. A half-mile from where the train came to a rest, the crossing lights were still flashing and the gates were down. One of the gates was torn away by the truck.
The truck was hauling about 50,000 pounds of trash from a transfer station in Kittery to the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Biddeford, according to a spokesman for Massachusetts trucking company Triumvirate Environmental Inc.
The impact left piles of garbage strewn on and alongside the tracks, but cleanup crews worked swiftly to remove the smelly mess, North Berwick officials said.
In reconstructing the crash, investigators are examining the GPS and any electronic equipment such as “black boxes” sometimes found aboard commercial trucks, McCausland said. It’s unclear whether this particular truck had a black box, or whether it survived the impact with the train.
Investigators don’t yet know how fast the truck was traveling along Route 4, which has a posted speed of 35 mph, McCausland said. The train was moving at 70 mph.
As part of the investigation, police expect to review the driver’s cell phone and log records as well, McCausland said. State police will share all their information with North Berwick police, which is the lead investigative agency.
Monday’s collision was the first crossing fatality in at least four years in the state, said Maine Operation Lifesaver, a group dedicated to rail safety.
The collision was the most serious incident in the nine-year history of the Downeaster which runs between Portland and Boston, serving nearly 1,400 passengers daily.
There have been about a dozen incidents involving vehicles or people who have strayed onto the tracks over the years, but Monday’s incident was the first fatality at a grade crossing, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster. Trespassing incidents also led to at least one fatality in Massachusetts, and there have been several suicides.
There have been no accidents blamed on Amtrak’s train or equipment failures over more than 31,000 train rides, Quinn said.