DALLAS (AP) — Three crew members were missing and one was hurt Tuesday after a head-on train collision in the Texas Panhandle that caused several box cars to erupt in flames and led authorities to evacuate residents in the area.
The two BNSF Railway freight trains were on the same track when they collided near the town of Panhandle, about 25 miles northeast of Amarillo. Each train carried two crew members; one man jumped before the collision, according to BNSF spokesman Joe Faust. The man was being treated at a hospital and the extent of his injuries was unknown.
It’s not clear how fast the trains were traveling when they collided, but the speed limit in that area is 70 mph, Faust said. It also wasn’t clear why the trains were on the same track. The rail cars were holding a variety of consumer goods, Faust said.
“I don’t know how anyone survived,” said Billy Brown, a farmer in the area who saw a fireball after the collision. “It’s terrible. I’ve seen a number of train wrecks but I’ve never seen one like this.”
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the NTSB has opened an investigation, and the Federal Railroad Administration said it has investigators on site.
Texas Department of Public Safety Lt. Bryan Witt said few other details were available because emergency responders were still assessing the damage. DPS Sgt. Dan Buesing said the fire was still burning Tuesday afternoon.
BNSF and other freight carriers have pledged to meet a 2018 federal deadline to adopt technology, called positive train control or PTC, that relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and automatically slow or stop trains that are in danger of colliding, derailing due to excessive speed or about to enter track where crews are working or that is otherwise off limits.
Faust said it wasn’t clear whether that technology was being used along the track or in the trains.
It’s not unusual to have an accident in the Panhandle involving a truck that’s struck by a freight train, Buesing said, but the magnitude of Tuesday’s accident was startling.
Officials in Panhandle ordered an evacuation of some nearby areas out of concern the flames would cause a fast-moving grass fire, the Amarillo Globe-News reported, but Buesing said that residents later returned to their homes and were told to shelter in place and monitor wind conditions. Officials also asked residents to curtail water use because the water supply is being depleted by firefighters at the scene, according to KVII-TV in Amarillo.
Tuesday’s accident is at least the second in recent years involving BNSF trains striking one another. In September 2013, three were involved in a wreck near Amarillo that injured five crew members, according to an NTSB report. The federal agency in that incident faulted the crew in one train for improperly proceeding past a signal and striking the rear of a stationary train, and cars that derailed were then struck by a train passing in the opposite direction.