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Deadly Amtrak derailment leaves a small Missouri town grieving, and eager to help

Workers inspect the scene of an Amtrak train which derailed after striking a dump truck Monday, June 27, 2022, near Mendon, Missouri.
Charlie Riedel
/
Associated Press
Workers inspect the scene of an Amtrak train which derailed after striking a dump truck Monday, June 27, 2022, near Mendon, Missouri.

Four people were killed and dozens injured when an Amtrak train struck a dump truck and derailed Monday in rural Missouri. Ambulances and helicopters took 150 passengers to area hospitals, while some were brought to a local high school for first aid.

Early Monday afternoon, Blaine Bessemer from Atlanta, Georgia, was speeding through the green rolling countryside of northern Missouri. Suddenly, he says, the brakes screeched.

"When he hit those brakes, we all kind of lunged forward. And then there was a loud, loud bang," Bessemer recalls.

Like a bomb, Bessemer explained, hard to describe.

"Well, now that I know what happened, it was like a giant piece of steel hitting a giant piece of stone."

Bessemer’s Amtrak train — the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago, via Kansas City — struck a big dump truck loaded with rock in the tiny town of Mendon, Missouri.

The collision tore the truck apart. The driver was killed, but the train rolled on about 100 yards more before all the cars slowly toppled over.

"And then people were falling — people falling everywhere,” Bessemer says. “And then, of course, we came to a stop pretty quickly, and then silence. Silence until everybody realized what just happened. Ugh. And here we are."

After the wreck, first responders brought passengers to the Mendon High School gymnasium. They passed out baby wipes, ibuprofen and aspirin and other first aid.

Vernie Williams, a nurse from Springfield, Ohio, sat with her suitcase a few bleachers down from Bessemer. She tears up remembering the camaraderie inside the train.

"People just pitched in and helped everybody. Everybody was helping everybody, even children were helping. It was really, such a tragic – people were amazing," Williams said. "Some didn't make it."

Three passengers died yesterday, in addition to the truck driver, and more than 50 were injured. Ambulances and helicopters took 150 people, including Williams' brother, to 10 area hospitals. According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the injuries "range from minor to serious in nature."

In a remote place like this, many first responders are volunteers. And Williams says the giving here has been almost overwhelming.

"I mean, just everything. ‘We'll get your luggage. We'll do this.’ You know, they've just, I don't know anything that they haven't done,” Williams says. “They've been absolutely wonderful. They really have."

The fatal intersection in Mendon is marked only by a simple railroad crossing sign, one without lights or bells or arms that swing down to block traffic.

“A lot of your rural intersections are that way,” said Missouri State Highway Patrol lieutenant Eric Brown on Monday.

In fact, KCUR found that crossing — at County Road 113 and Porche Prairie Road— was identified for improvement in a Missouri Department of Transportation’s State Freight & Rail Plan report published in February of this year. To upgrade the crossing would cost upwards of $400,000.

Chicago attorney Kristofer Riddle says such so-called “unguarded crossings” are inherently dangerous, especially to passenger trains.

"Here, we're talking about a train that was carrying over 200 people,” Riddle says. “And when there's a mistake that occurs when somebody makes a poor judgment, somebody isn't paying attention, when there's human error, which there always will be, the stakes are way too high."

Just this past weekend, another Amtrak train hit a car in the same type of unguarded crossing in northern California, killing three people in the sedan and critically injuring two others. No one on the train was hurt.

The National Transportation Safety Board is reviewing both accidents.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.