Monday, January 03, 2005
and STEVE MAYES
HILLSBORO -- A fire engine barreled into a MAX light-rail train Sunday afternoon in downtown Hillsboro, hitting hard enough to knock a 55-ton train car from the tracks.
Various witnesses said the crash sounded like a bomb exploding, a house collapsing or an earthquake. More astounding than the force that derailed the train was the strength of a fir tree, about 60 feet tall, that stood between the wreckage and an occupied house.
"All of the mass of the train and the engine was prevented from hitting the house by that fir tree," said Dave Foster, an investigator for the Hillsboro Fire Department, whose Engine 1 hit the train.
Foster said the fire engine was heading south on Fifth Avenue, on its way to a fire on Southeast Currin Lane, when it hit the train about 4:15 p.m.
The crash hurt four people, including one of the engine's four crew members. A Life Flight Network helicopter carried him to OHSU Hospital. He was in serious but stable condition Sunday evening, Hillsboro police Commander Henry Riemann said. Police declined to release the victims' names.
Foster said the train operator and a passenger, who were less seriously injured, were taken to Tuality Community Hospital. A woman in the house saved by the fir was also taken to Tuality when she complained of chest pains after watching the hulking vehicles fly toward her home, Foster said. The other three firefighters were checked by medics and released, he said.
TriMet spokesman Tim Garling estimated the train had 10 to 15 riders, the rest of whom were bused to their stations. He said crews would work through Sunday night to set the 220,000-pound, two-car train back on its tracks and restore service. If the wreck still blocks the Blue Line today, TriMet will use buses to ferry passengers to the line's three westernmost stations, he said. Commuters can check www.trimet.org to see whether the trains are running the full route this morning.
Officials said that MAX trains and fire engines both carry systems that should automatically connect with traffic signals to prevent such accidents. A failure of one of those systems is the most probable reason for the wreck, but investigators have much work to pinpoint the cause, Garling said.
TriMet spokesman Bruce Solberg said the trains "have traffic priority going through intersections because of the distance it takes our trains to stop."
Scores of people gathered to gawk at and photograph the massive wreck, which filled the intersection of Southeast Fifth Avenue and Washington Street.
The train's lead car knocked over a lamppost; its front glass was smashed. The entire back end of the fire engine was crushed and twisted like an empty soda can. The engine's ladder angled into the fir 12 feet in the air, while yards of red and orange hose unspooled amid scattered fire shovels and oxygen bottles.
The debris almost included the body of Tom Johnson, who was heading from his nearby home to the store. Johnson said he was about to walk into the intersection when he heard sirens and paused to watch the fire engine.
"I heard the truck getting closer," he said, "and then he lays on the horn. Then, all of the sudden, I heard this loud collision -- Bam! -- almost as loud as a grenade.
"You just see this big wall of metal moving toward you. If I'd been there three seconds earlier, I'd have been under the train."
Kevin McQueen leapt from his easy chair in his house on the intersection's southwest corner when he heard the crash.
"I thought we were having an earthquake," he said. "The last thing I saw was the front of the MAX go over the light pole. . . . It hit the (engine's) water tank. There was water coming out -- I thought it hit a fire hydrant.
"That's a full-size firetruck, and there's nothing left of the back of it."
Andy Dworkin: 503-221-8239; firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Mayes: 503-294-5916; email@example.com
Coming up on today's Lars Larson Show:
• Should a MAX driver be sited for failing to stop for a firetruck?