Train hits stopped tomato trailer near Turlock

September 19, 2011 

— An Amtrak train carrying 163 people struck a tomato-toting big rig that had stopped on the tracks east of Turlock this afternoon, the CHP said.

After initially reporting that nobody had been injured, the CHP later said 20 people required medical care — all for soreness and back and neck pain.

The accident left thousands of tomatoes strewn near the site and passengers stranded as Amtrak officials scrambled to find alternative transportation for its customers.

Witnesses said the big rig with two trailers hauling containers packed with tomatoes was headed east about 1:40 p.m. on Geer Road when it approached the the stop sign at Santa Fe Avenue.

For an unknown reason, the truck was stopped with the back trailer still on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, according to officer Matt Fowles of the California Highway Patrol.

He said the driver did not see or hear the train coming, but witnesses said at some point he figured it out and jumped from the truck.

"We're still trying to determine why he stopped," Fowles said. "We're not sure if it was mechanical, or something else."

He said the railroad crossing bells, arms and lights were functioning.

The train tore the second trailer off the big rig, sending tomatoes and debris everywhere. A car traveling south on Santa Fe suffered minor damage, Fowles said.

The big rig driver remained at the scene.

Fowles credited the Amtrak conductor for keeping her 159 passengers and four crew members safe.

"She did everything she could to stop the train," he said. "She put the train into emergency braking. She got it stopped pretty quickly."

He said the locomotive carrying the four cars suffered enough front-end damage to deem it unusable. Amtrak had planned to bring another locomotive from Oakland that would enable passengers to resume their trip.

About 4:30 p.m., when passengers got to the Amtrak station in east Modesto, some began complaining of pain, Fowles said. He said they were taken by ambulance to Doctors Medical Center and Memorial Medical Center or told officials they'd seek medical care on their own.

Crews remained at the scene working into the late afternoon because of fallen Turlock Irrigation District power lines linked to the accident, the CHP reported.

Fowles said the truck was fine and the front trailer suffered minor damage.

The incident remains under investigation.

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