NORTH BERWICK — A Downeaster train with 109 passengers aboard slammed into a trash-hauling tractor trailer at 11:05 a.m. today, killing at least one person.
The driver of the truck died in the collision, said Cliff Cole, a spokesman based in Amtrak’s New York office. Some of the train’s 109 passengers were injured, but it’s not clear how many or how seriously they were hurt, said Steve McCausland from the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Justin Nelson, 24, of Los Angeles, was traveling on the Downeaster with his wife as part of a cross-country rail tour when “we drove through what looked like a fireball.”
“We were just sitting there, running along, when all of the sudden, the train started violently shaking,” Nelson said. “Then there was fire all around us. There was lots of screaming.”
At the scene of the collision, heaps of trash covered the gravel alongside the tracks for several hundred feet. Various other charred debris smoldered amongst the garbage. The locomotive and at least one passenger car were still aflame more than an hour after the crash, according to eyewitnesses.
According to Cole, the train left Boston at 9:05 a.m. and headed northbound to Portland, before the fiery collision occurred in this rural York County town of 4,300 people. The crash set off a mad dash of multiple agencies, who raced to the scene to put out fires and assess the damage.
David Davis said he witnessed the accident from his driveway as he unloaded groceries. He saw the truck coming northbound on Route 4 toward the intersection, heard the gates closing and heard the train sound its whistle, but the truck couldn’t stop.
“He just locked the brakes right up, his tires were smoking,” Davis said. “I saw the truck just slide through the gate. The next thing I saw was â€¨a big ball of fire.”
At the crash scene, authorities found the crossing gate — a long wooden arm with flashing red lights atop it — on the pavement, the tractor trailer having ripped it off. More than 75 yards of skid marks on Route 4 showed the truck’s unsuccessful attempt to brake. That part of Route 4 moves gradually downhill as it approaches the railroad crossing.
After the impact, the northbound train continued for a half-mile before coming to a stop, officials said. All-terrain vehicles were used to get the injured passengers from the train to waiting ambulances, McCausland said.
None of the injuries appeared to be life threatening, Amtrak said.
Uninjured passengers waited in a wooded area nearby for school buses to take them to Portland. Some spoke on cell phones, contacting friends and family to report they were safe. In the sky above, thick plumes of smoke marred an otherwise pristinely blue sky.
Tom Gorski, who works in a building 50 yards from the intersection, said he heard the approaching locomotive, then a massive boom that shook the building.
He said he ran to the scene, where the truck’s cab was split with half on each side of the tracks. Amid the sprawling debris, there were skidmarks where the vehicle tried to stop.
“It looked like somebody dropped a bomb. The flames were shooting higher than a three-story house,” Gorski said. “It brings tears to your eyes.”
Authorities found the driver’s body more than 70 yards from where the collision occurred. The body was lying in a mound of grass, about 30 feet east of the tracks. It was badly burned, officials said. They did not immediately release the victim’s name.
June Adams, of Kennebunk, was at the intersection of Route 4 and the railroad tracks, where the crash occurred. She was in her vehicle, waiting in line to cross the intersection.
“There was a big fireball,” Adams said. “The train was going down the track, and then it was engulfed in flames.”
She pointed to a 60-foot-tall tree near the scene of the collision. “The fireball,” she said, “was like that.” After the crash, she could hardly move.
“I was trying to dial 911,” she said, “but my hand was shaking so hard I couldn’t.”
According to a Sanford firefighter who responded to the scene, the train’s engineer jumped out of the vehicle immediately after the crash and manually unhooked the front car, which was burning out of control. The car ended up about 1,000 feet from the rest of the train, according to other eyewitnesses.
Larry Straffin, deputy fire chief, said the truck was on its way to a landfill when the collision occurred. There were six minor injuries and no broken bones, he said.
A spokeswoman for Goodall Hospital in Sanford said three train victims were treated there — two for smoke inhalation, one for head trauma. Two of the three have already been released, she said. The third will be released later today.
Straffin praised the engineer’s quick thinking to unhook the burning vehicle so the fire wouldn’t spread. He also helped quickly remove the passengers and staff from the cars.
“He did a really good job,” Straffin said.
Shortly after the crash, the smell of burnt materials had reached most parts of the town. The locomotive was blackened beyond recognition, with pieces falling off it.
“You couldn’t even tell what kind of train it was,” said Brianna Bataran, 17, of North Berwick.