An Amtrak passenger train carrying about 170 people struck a car that had skirted a gate at a road crossing near Detroit on Thursday, killing all five people in the sedan, authorities said. The victims were believed to be teens.
The crossing has a gate and flashing lights that apparently were working when the car approached, said Sgt. Mark Gajeski, a police spokesman. Based on witness accounts, "it looks like they probably did go around the arm. They went around the gate," Gajeski said.
The crash occurred around 12:30 p.m. in Canton Township, about 20 miles west of Detroit, said police Sgt. Craig Wilsher. He said the vehicle was heading north when it crossed the train tracks and was struck. The train typically travels about 67 miles per hour at the site of the crash, Gajeski said.
"All of a sudden, there was a thunk," said Alice McCardell, 45, of Dearborn, who was taking the train to a library conference in Chicago. "You knew you hit something but you didn't know what."
Car pushed down the tracks
The car was broadsided and pushed down the tracks. It was crumpled underneath the front of the train and ended up right-side up, its roof and front crushed.
Gajeski said the car was pushed about a mile from one road crossing to another.
James Reese, 59, of Royal Oak, who was taking the train to an Ann Arbor museum with his wife and grandson and was riding in the second car, said he felt a brief "surge" of the brakes but "no impact and no sound."
"We just knew something bad had happened when the engineer came on the loudspeaker and told us people had been hurt in the accident. Then he told us there were fatalities and we were very sad to hear that," Reese said after the train, which was headed from Detroit to Chicago, returned to the Dearborn station.
Passengers were to be bused to Ann Arbor to catch a later train to Chicago, an Amtrak spokesman said.
The only reported medical problem among the approximately 170 people aboard the train was a case of a passenger with asthma, Gajeski said.
Victims believed to be teens
The victims were believed to be four males, ages 17 and 18, and a 14-year-old female, he said, based on who was supposed to be in the car at the time, according to its registered owner. All five were from outside the western Wayne County community, but police weren't releasing their names or hometowns or their relationship to the car's owner.
The bodies remained in the black Ford more than three hours after the crash while the investigation was ongoing, Gajeski said.
"There is every indication the train crew was doing exactly what it should have been doing and that there was no malfunction of the train," said Marc Magliari, a Chicago-based Amtrak spokesman. "They can't make vehicles, or pedestrians for that matter, heed signals."
"This is tragic for both the family of those who died and the train crew," he said.
Passenger Michael Huckaby of Cedarburg, Wis., said he could hear and feel the railroad car's couplings coming together but didn't hear a whistle.
"He hit the brakes, we hit the car," Huckaby said.
The train — which has a front and rear engine and five passenger cars — was stopped near a landfill and a wooded area. The mangled sedan was pushed against the front of the train and investigators covered it with greenish-gray tarp.
About 3 1/2 hours after the crash, the five passenger cars and rear engine of Amtrak train 353 pulled away from the engine and returned to Dearborn. The front engine was to remain at the scene during the investigation.
'They kept us comfortable'
While the passengers waited to leave, the rear engine was kept running so the air conditioning and bathrooms worked.
"They kept us comfortable, passed out snacks and took our dogs out for potty brakes," said Huckaby, who had traveled to Detroit with his guide dog for a convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
Last year, 119 people died nationwide in Amtrak accidents, usually when trains struck vehicles or pedestrians at railroad crossings, according to figures from the Federal Railroad Administration. Eleven people died in train accidents of all types in Michigan in 2008, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
The National Transportation Safety Board hasn't yet decided whether to investigate the crash, spokesman Keith Holloway said.
"Preliminary information indicates that there was no derailment, there were no fatalities on board the Amtrak" train, he said. "We don't always investigate grade-crossing accidents."