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Firetruck changed signal to green, test determines
A re-enactment of Sunday's collision of a MAX train and a fire engine leads investigators to consider human error as a cause
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
HOLLY DANKS

HILLSBORO -- Monday's re-enactment to understand a devastating collision between a MAX train and a Hillsboro fire engine showed the emergency vehicle's system to change traffic lights worked from blocks away and gave it the right of way.

Preliminary test results show the electronic system used to change traffic signals to green was functioning properly, said Lt. Chris Skinner, Hillsboro police spokesman. But authorities say determining what caused the Sunday afternoon collision could take at least until the end of the week. The tests were conducted with fire engines and computer records.

"We are investigating if it was a human error -- on either side -- or if it was a signal system malfunction," said Mary Fetsch, TriMet spokeswoman. She said the train's operator, a nine-year TriMet employee, remained hospitalized Monday, and she didn't know what he saw.

Four people, including a firefighter and the MAX operator, were hospitalized with minor injuries.

"Any time you have a situation like this that involves two enormous pieces of equipment, you certainly feel very, very fortunate that you don't have more people injured and that the injuries aren't worse," Skinner said.

The crash happened about 4:15 p.m. Sunday at Southeast Fifth Avenue and Washington Street as the fire engine headed south to a house fire and the MAX train headed east toward Portland.

At the time of the accident, officials said, the train was going 10 to 15 mph, and the fire engine was going 15 to 20 mph.

Fetsch said the driver may not have been able to stop the train after it had gone one block from its last station. She said a 55-ton MAX train takes 50 feet to stop when it is going 15 mph or slower.

The Washington County Crash Analysis Reconstruction Team is investigating, along with Hillsboro police and fire officials, TriMet and Hillsboro traffic engineers.

Fire Chief Gary Seidel said initial data from the computer in the traffic lights indicate that Vincent Rosatti, who was driving the fire engine, changed the traffic light at the tracks to green two blocks away.

"Once the light was changed, it held," Seidel said.

Rosatti, Lt. Carl Tuma and Chad Carey, "my two firefighters and the engineer at the scene told me, 'We had the green,' " Seidel said.

Firetrucks, police cars and ambulances have an Opticon system, invented by 3M, that activates switches in traffic signals to give them a green light. The system runs through the strobe lights on the vehicle's roof.

Light-rail operators let street traffic clear before signaling their own light system that the train is ready to proceed to the next stop. The traffic lights then hold to allow the trains to pass, Fetsch said.

At an intersection, if an emergency vehicle changes the light first, it takes priority, Fetsch said.

Four to six car-train accidents occur in a month on TriMet's entire line, which runs 33 miles from Hillsboro to Gresham, Fetsch said. Since Tri-Met began serving the west side in September 1998, 16 traffic accidents have involved trains moving through Hillsboro, she said.

There are no barriers at MAX-street intersections in downtown Hillsboro, as is the case through much of the light-rail system. Some jurisdictions, such as Beaverton, opted for barriers at some intersections. No downtown Portland intersections have barriers.

Erwin Promitzer, a firefighter sitting in the right-hand passenger seat in the back of the cab, was unconscious and had to be cut out of his safety harness and breathing apparatus. Promitzer, 43, a Hillsboro firefighter for nearly 20 years, was taken to OHSU Hospital by a LifeFlight helicopter. He was released Monday.

Fetsch identified the MAX operator as William Wagoner, 58, of Beaverton. He was expected to be released today from Tuality Community Hospital in Hillsboro. The condition and name of a MAX passenger who was taken to a hospital were not released.

Based on the damage to the fire engine and physical evidence at the scene, Skinner said the train apparently struck the passenger side of the fire engine just behind the cab. The train jumped the tracks and pushed the wrecked fire engine into the yard of a house on the southeast corner of the intersection. A 60-foot fir tree in the yard kept the wreckage from hitting the house.

A woman in the house was so frightened she was taken to a hospital with chest pains. Her name and condition were not released.

Seidel said the engine, the city's newest, cost $300,000 in January 2003. The engine was a total loss.

The chief credited Rosatti with keeping the crash from being worse. He said the engineer saw the train coming a split second before the collision and accelerated to keep MAX from hitting the cab directly.

John Snell and Sophia Tareen of The Oregonian contributed to this report. Holly Danks: 503-221-4377; hollydanks@news.oregonian.com

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