August 20, 2014 Edition

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Rubble and a burned out engine remained in the aftermath of the early Sunday morning head-on crash of two Union Pacific freight trains in Hoxie. The collision occurred approximately one-half mile south of the intersection of the U.S. Hwys. 67 and 63, just inside the Hoxie city limits. Photo Courtesy ~ Imboden Live

Cause of train crash
still undetermined

John Bland

The cause of the head-on train crash of two Union Pacific freight trains in Hoxie remains undetermined. In a news conference Monday, National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) Investigator Mike Hiller said the conclusion and probable cause determination generally takes from six months to a year.

Hiller added that more news briefings will be held as needed and when more information becomes available.

The crash occurred Sunday morning, just before 2:30, and left two Union Pacific employees dead, two injured and resulted in the temporary evacuation of approximately 300 people, as well as the closure of area highways for varying periods. Aerial photographs showed that approximately 15 train cars were derailed in the crash.

After the collision, a fire erupted and black smoke could be seen coming from the site with occasional flames rising above the trees. The engine fire was put out late Sunday morning, while an alcohol fire was allowed to burn through the night.

The Jonesboro Sun reported that Hoxie residents and neighbors Rickie McCoy and Bobbie Johnson and her 18-year-old son, Colton, as well as a police officer were the first on the scene after hearing the loud and repeated crashes.

They came upon the two injured train crewmen, who were lying just a few feet from an engine that had turned sideways. They assisted the men, trying to reassure and help them away from potential danger.

Bobbie Johnson and McCoy both called 911, according to The Sun.

Jeff DeGraff, Union Pacific spokesman, said Monday the two people killed in the crash were Chance Gober of White Hall, the engineer of the southbound train, and Roderick Hayes of McKinney, Texas, the conductor of the southbound train, which was supposed to stop and wait for the northbound train to pass at the point where the double tracks, which run through Walnut Ridge and Hoxie, converge into one main track.

Injured were engineer Michael Zompakos of Maumelle and conductor Aaron Jeffery of Conway, who were both in the northbound train.

Hiller said the southbound train was operating on the double main track, and the operational plan was to stop this train while the northbound train passed. However, the southbound train did not stop, Hiller said.

The southbound train signals were displaying advanced approach, which signals the train crew to slow the train and eventually stop. The northbound train signals were displaying a diverging route, meaning it would leave the single track and switch to the double track.

Hiller said the northbound train had originated in Little Rock. It consisted of two locomotives with 92 cars, with 18 of them being tank cars, seven empty and 11 of them carrying hazardous materials, none of which were damaged. This train was not carrying petroleum crude oil, he added.

The southbound train, originating from east St. Louis, consisted of two locomotives and 86 cars, 20 of which were tank cars, also hauling hazardous materials, none of which was damaged other than one consumable alcohol-carrying car. This train also did not contain any petroleum crude oil. Investigation

Hiller said the NTSB investigation is well underway but that it is still early in the process. Brakes were being checked, and personnel are being interviews, with the injured being interviewed when their health status improves. Records of the train crew are also being investigated, and the data recorders and video recorders from the trains were being shipped to a lab in Washington, D.C.

While information is being gathered at the crash site, the determination of the cause will be made offsite, Hiller said.

As a precautionary measure, up to 300 Hoxie area residents were evacuated. The evacuees were directed to the Walnut Ridge Community Center, according to the Arkansas State Police. A one and a half square mile radius was the approximate area being evacuated.

After it was determined that no train cars with hazardous materials had been damaged, residents were able to return to their homes by mid afternoon Sunday. Highways closed

All highways leading into Hoxie crash site were blocked by Arkansas State Police and local law enforcement personnel Sunday morning.

Motorists traveling along U.S. 67 through Lawrence County were being detoured onto Highway 91 east of Hoxie. On Tuesday afternoon, a small section of the highway was still blocked while cranes were in use to remove wreckage. Hoxie Police Chief Glen Smith said the area would likely continue to be blocked for a few more days.

Most of Sunday, several miles of U.S. Hwy. 63 were also blocked off. This area ranged from the Hwy. 63 and 91 intersection, southeast of Hoxie, to the Hwy. 412 intersection toward Portia. Blockades on these highways caused traffic to back up and seek alternate routes.

U.S. Senator Mark Pryor and County Judge Dale Freeman were scheduled to tour the crash site early Tuesday afternoon.

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