Democrat Photo by Dan Hust
TRAGEDY: Locals attend to Florence Thomas and Jeanne Marie Marley inside this car at the railroad crossing in Callicoon Wednesday. The photo was taken less than five minutes after a Norfolk Southern train collided with the vehicle, killing Thomas (who was driving) and seriously injuring Marley. The force of the impact was so strong that it tilted the steel signal pole the car is resting against.
Horrific Accident Claims a Life
By Dan Hust
CALLICOON March 31, 2000 -- Apparently panicking when warning bars descended on either side of her car as she crossed the railroad tracks in Callicoon Wednesday, Florence Thomas never got out of the way of an oncoming locomotive which crushed her vehicle and killed her.
The 75-year-old Long Eddy woman was pronounced dead shortly before 2 p.m. Wednesday, less than an hour after the Norfolk Southern train struck her white Plymouth Acclaim at the crossing in the center of Callicoon.
Her friend and passenger, 86-year-old Jeanne Marie Marley of French Woods, sustained severe injuries and was helicoptered from Grover M. Hermann Hospital in Callicoon to St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, where she was listed yesterday in critical condition.
According to merchants and shoppers along Academy Street, which is separated from Callicoons Main Street by the parallel Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, Thomas was driving down a steep grade called Olympia Hill and turned left to cross the tracks and get on Main Street.
Although no one interviewed by the Democrat claimed to have seen the accident itself, State Police who are investigating the incident in conjunction with Norfolk Southern said interviews with witnesses and the train crew indicated Thomas crossed the tracks as the flashing warning bars were descending.
Thomas attempted to back up, said police, but the bar behind her had already descended. Police believe she panicked in those seconds before the train hit the car, spinning it around and slamming it into one of the warning signal poles with such force that the steel pole tilted.
One of the warning bars which are designed to easily break off in emergencies was snapped in the collision. (A Norfolk Southern official speculated that Thomas could have driven through the bars without even damaging her vehicle.)
The train consisted of two locomotives and 45 cars 10 loaded and 35 empty and was traveling between 30 and 40 MPH. The engineer had already applied the trains emergency brakes, but the tremendous weight of the train caused it to slide nearly a half mile farther down the tracks before coming to a stop. By that time, Thomas car was already wrapped around the signal pole.
Shocked residents and witnesses including at least one Upper Delaware Ambulance Corps volunteer sprang into action to help the victims.
Others could only stand by and watch, horrified.
I didnt hear it [the accident], said a stunned Joe Naughton, owner of the Western Hotel, which is right in front of the railroad crossing. If youre not watching the crossing, you dont hear it.
While watching arriving emergency workers attend to victims, other observers agreed that the sounds of the passing train drowned out the crunch of the collision.
But not for Kathi Zieres, who operates the Shear Pleasure hair salon next door to the Western.
I heard a definite thud, she said. Thats when I called [emergency control].
Callicoon Fire Department members were first on the scene, since the firehouse is across the street from the crossing also, and they were shortly followed by Hortonville and Jeffersonville FD members, who brought the Jaws of Life to extricate Thomas, even though she had already been pronounced dead at the scene.
MobileMedic and the Upper Delaware Ambulance Corps provided medical services, and North Branch FD stood by for Hortonville.
Although a mournful whistle at 4:15 that afternoon signaled the exit of the train, the crossing remained closed at press time yesterday so that an investigation could be completed and the damaged warning signals could be repaired.
Unfortunately, said Norfolk Southern Assistant Vice-President for Public Relations Frank Brown, accidents like this are far too common.
In the United States, there are 270,000 public and private highway at-grade crossings, he remarked somberly yesterday. There are 4,000 accidents a year at those crossings, and about 1,600 people are hurt badly enough to require medical attention. About 400 die [in these accidents] every year.
But, he said, with increasing awareness and campaigns like Norfolk Southerns Operation Lifesaver, these accidents have been decreasing over the years bit by bit.
But, any injuries are too many, he added.
Callicoon and neighboring railroad communities see between eight and a dozen trains come through a day. Although it did not disrupt rail service on the line between Binghamton and New York City, Brown said Norfolk Southern will conduct its own investigation into the matter.