EDITORS NOTE: This story first appeared as an investigation by the I Team on CBS Channel 11 in Dallas July 3.
(CBSDFW.COM) – “This was an accident waiting to happen. It’s a death trap.” Bob Pottroff is talking about the intersection in Athens where a school bus collided with a train in January, killing 13-year-old Christopher Bonilla.
“This was a trap that was going to catch somebody in either a commercial vehicle or a bus.” And he believes that is what happened in this collision.
The I-Team met up with the nationally-recognized railroad crossing lawyer at the airport. He’s reviewed the accident but is not representing anyone in this case. In response to what did the driver do wrong, he said, “What he did wrong was trust his eyes and ears.”
Pottroff says a driver normally only has 15-seconds to clear tracks once he or she can see a train or hear the horn, but he says at least 30-seconds are needed at the Athens intersection and at thousands of others crossings nationwide. He pointed out three problems he says are common dangers.
He says notice the angle of this intersection. It is not 90-degrees.
“Almost all accidents happen at the angle where you have to look back beyond your physical abilities of your neck,” says Pottroff.
Look at the black line where new asphalt has recently been laid. The railroad creates that by periodically coming in, raising the tracks at crossings, laying new asphalt to smooth out the surface, and then putting the tracks back down. It’s needed maintenance, but Pottroff says that creates a problem. He says the maintenance slowly creates a steep incline on each sides of the tracks. It’s called a “hump.” He says the driver of a large vehicle needs more time to get over it.
“Biloxi was a prime example of how bad humps have become…” says Pottroff.
In 2017, four people died and 37 more were injured when a bus got stuck at a crossing in Mississippi. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report stated the probable cause was “a vertical profile crossing” which is also known in the industry as the “hump.” In the NTSB’s report, the government blamed the railroad, the city, the Federal Highway Administration and several other entities for the “risks posed by grade crossings with high vertical profiles.” Pottroff says that happened at this Athen’s intersection.
And finally, Pottroff says if buses must cross these intersections, drivers need warning signals to give them those extra life-saving seconds to safely cross. This intersection did not have lights, signals or gates.
It’s a danger I-Team investigator Brian New pointed out in an investigation in May 2019. Despite a history of collisions, New found many Texas crossing do not have gates.
“My first thought is the school bus should have never been at that intersection,” says Pottroff.
WHY DIDN’T THE GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATE?
The NTSB typically investigates these accidents; however, this one happened in January when the US Government was shut down. The NTSB did not have a team to send to Athens. Instead, Henderson County investigated the accident and turned the case over the District Attorney’s office which handed it the Grand Jury.
John Stevens a 78-year-old Mabank man entered a not guilty plea in 392nd District Court on Wednesday morning for charges resulting from the bus-train collision.
Stevens was arraigned for criminally negligent homicide, a state jail felony and injury to a child, a second degree felony.
Local attorneys Brian Schmid, Justin Weiner and Mike Head will represent Stevens in the up coming trial.
No trial date has been set.