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Article published April 26, 2013
Officials investigate deadly train-bus crash
EVANS CITY — An elderly woman has died after being injured in a bus-train crash Friday morning. Claudette Miller, 91, of Callery was pronounced dead at 1:03 p.m. Friday from injuries in the crash, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiners office. She was taken to AGH by helicopter from the crash site. She was among 11 people who were treated at five hospitals. Two other elderly passengers were reported in critical condition Friday, one at AGH and the other at UPMC Presbyterian hospital. These three elderly crash victims had been on the bus through a program of the Butler County Area Agency on Aging. Other passengers have mental disabilities. At least one was headed to his job. Other victims were treated for less serious injuries at UPMC Passavant, UPMC Passavant Cranberry and Butler Memorial Hospital. The passengers were mostly men ranging from their mid 20s to 90s. The bus is operated by the Butler Area Rural Transit program, BART, a program that provides rides for people who make an appointment. A frequent use of the program is to get patients to doctor appointments. Evans City police Chief Joe McCombs said the train hit the bus in its center after the bus had stopped in the middle of the tracks. It’s not clear why the bus driver stopped there, although the McCombs said heavy fog might have contributed to the accident. The train conductor sounded a horn several times, according to police, but didn’t succeed in alerting the driver. There are no lights or crossing gates at that intersection. The chief said three to four trains travel through that area daily. He said he couldn’t recall any other accident at that location. McCombs said he couldn’t speculate on whether the bus driver had a medical emergency before the accident. He also couldn’t estimate what speed the train was traveling, although he added there were no injuries to the three people on board. John Burgard, 42, who has Down syndrome, was one of the passengers on the bus. He suffered a broken leg and was taken to Allegheny General, according to friends and family. The bus had just picked up Burgard at the home of his parents, Richard and Francis Burgard, who live on Maple Avenue. Burgard has a job and was going to work. He rides the bus to work twice a week. ”His mother sees him on and off the bus every time, and she was there and seen it happen,” said Terri Yochum, who is the girlfriend of John’s brother, referring to the collision. Because of the train blocking the crossing, John’s parents were unable to immediately get to the bus to check on their son. But that didn’t stop his 84-year-old father, Richard. “He either crawled under the train or climb between the (train) cars to get to John and speak to him,” Yochum said. Brian Greenawalt, a medic with Harmony EMS, said that many passengers had cuts, scrapes and bruises from the accident. Some also complained of abdominal pain. He said one passenger had “a pretty significant head injury.” Beth Herold, director of the county’s Agency on Aging, was at the scene to check up on three elderly passengers. “We adopt them and they become like family,” Herold said. “We’re praying for all involved and their families. It’s a heartbreaking situation.” Evans City Sgt. Don Myers said the 59-year-old driver Frank Schaffner of Butler was taken to Butler Memorial Hospital. A representative from the train company at the scene declined to comment. McCombs said the fog possibly was a factor and may have distracted the bus driver. Police said the engineers on the train blew the alarm signal when they saw the bus on the tracks. “We don‘t know if the horn startled him,” McCombs said. Freya Colonello lives on Mars Evans City Road about 50 yards from the accident. She was asleep when she heard an incredibly loud bang, which she chalked up to the fact that she lives near a concrete yard. But she knew something was wrong when distant emergency sirens grew louder and eventually stopped in front of her house. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “There aren’t any lights or gates down there at the railroad crossing. It’s not safe at all.” Although the train was driven from the scene by Friday afternoon, investigators said the tracks in Evans City will be closed to train traffic indefinitely while multiple agencies complete an investigation into the crash. By mid-afternoon, the bus had been towed away. Michael Williams, director of communications for Genesee and Wyoming Inc., the parent company of the Buffalo and Pittsburgh Railroad, said on Friday that he doesn’t know how long the tracks will be closed because the company is concentrating on the injured. “Our concern now is with the folks who were injured,” said an obviously shaken Williams. “Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their loved ones.” He said a full investigation is under way into why the train smashed into the bus. The train is owned by Carload Express, Inc. of Oakmont, which operates the Allegheny Valley Railroad. The company operates three shore line railroads. Williams said while he does not know the train’s speed at the time of the crash, the speed limit at Maple Avenue is 25 mph. Officials from Genesee and Wyoming, Allegheny Valley Railroad, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board will participate in the investigation at the scene, Williams said. He said the tracks will be closed “for as long as it takes” to complete the investigation. A man who answered the telephone at Allegheny Valley Railroad on Friday morning said the train included 29 cars. He did not have information on what the cars were hauling, where the train was coming from, or any other details. Two inspectors for the Transportation Security Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, briefly joined in the investigation. “Basically, we were called to touch base,” said one inspector, who declined to give his name.