A tour of the 8-mile run of death

December 1997

By Yvette Craig of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — The crew of a Fort Worth-bound train pulled four engines into the rural siding about midnight Wednesday.

They parked it, set the brakes and left, officials said.

Within perhaps 15 minutes, the brakes were off — by an act of God, an act of negligence or an act of vandalism or sabotage.

Parked on a slight incline, the unmanned tons of steel started inching eastward, then rolling and finally rumbling down a single track.

The train hurtled past sleeping farm communities and fields dotted with bales of hay before its deadly rendevouz with an oncoming train.

Investigators said the linked engines traveled some 8 miles in the dark of night on their own before crashing into the other train and killing two crew members just before 1 a.m. EDT, in southwest Fort Worth.

As the dark, empty mammoth picked up speed, it passed a handful of crossings that could have been used by motorists traveling late on the overcast night.

On its deadly route, it passed near tiny trailer-home communities and crossed rusty bridges spanning muddy creeks.

It also passed over three sensors that should have notified dispatchers in Fort Worth and Omaha, Neb., that the unmanned train was on the move, but apparently no one caught it.

As the eastbound locomotives rolled toward Fort Worth, four crew members were westbound on the way to hook them to their own five locomotives and 114 cars.

They collided in a fireball, breaking the darkness and jolting residents of a Ridgewood Estates neighborhood, 30 yards away, from their sleep.

Denise Pointer had just turned in with her dentist husband, Gary Pointer, when they were thrown from their beds.

"We thought a bomb had gone off. There was a bright orange fireball and at first we thought our house was on fire," she said, standing on a ladder to look over the brick wall of Ridgewood Estates at the wreckage.

"It was terrifying. ... We grabbed our two teen-agers and left. We didn't know if something else was going to blow up or burn. We saw two men running and then we got out," Pointer said.

She said when they went in the backyard to look, "We couldn't stand out here because (the heat) was so intense."

Off-duty Fort Worth police officer I. Espinoza said he was near Interstate 20 and Hulen Street when a red-and-black fireball lit up the sky and a shock wave hit his car.

Espinoza took off the T-shirt he had pulled over his uniform and began directing traffic, diverting traffic off the main road at the collision site.

Two hours after the collision, the street was still slick from diesel fuel and fire-fighting foam. Dozens of fire engines were parked along the road, turning the night into day with emergency lights. Firefighters were still battling flames that licked 20 feet in the air from one of the overturned engines.

When daylight arrived, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram helicopter tour of the runaway train's path belied the slight grade that gave the locomotives the acceleration for their deadly speed.

Ten hours after the crash, crews were beginning to untangle the wreckage site.

From the sky, the aftermath — a twisted mound of charred black metal — looked like a toy train set destroyed by a child's firecracker blast.

High above the hulk of metal, crane operators were piecing one of the locomotives together like a large jigsaw puzzle.

Another engine that had become a coffin for two in the four-man crew was down an embankment on its side.

Closer to the homes with their tennis courts and custom-designed swimming pools, another locomotive was down.

Other engines smoldered, one on top of the other along the railroad tracks.

A black oil mixture snaked its way from the crash site down a concrete drainage ditch into the Clear Fork of the Trinity River. The fuel looked more like an out-of-place ink spot in an otherwise untouched body of water.

Spectators, some out walking their dogs, could be seen trying to get a glimpse of the horrific scene.

Staff writers Kathy Sanders and Michael S. Lee contributed to this story.

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Distributed by the New York Times News Service

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