EVANS CITY — A bus-train collision that left two dead and nine others injured, one critically, was tragic but not a crime, said the lawyer for the driver at a center of a police investigation into last month’s crash.
A second passenger, John D. Burkett, 88, of Zelienople, died Saturday at the VNA Inpatient Hospice in Butler.
“He’s really distraught, really upset,” attorney Michael Pawk, referring to 59-year-old Frank Schaffner of Butler, said Monday. “He’s friends with these people. He’s cried at my office.”
Schaffner also is concerned that he could face criminal charges in the crash.
Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger on Monday met with Evans City Police Chief Joe McCombs to discuss the status of the investigation.
“But there’s been no conclusions on what if any criminal charges may be pursued,” Goldinger said.
Pawk, in defending Schaffner, disputed reports that his client had stopped the Butler Area Rural Transit bus April 26 on railroad tracks on Maple Avenue in Evans City.
Investigators said the 12-seat bus filled with senior citizens and adults with special needs was struck broadside by a freight train shortly after 8 a.m.
“He was proceeding over the tracks slowly as he always did, because there’s a drop off there and because his passengers were elderly and special needs,” Pawk said of Schaffner.
On that morning, too, investigators agree, it was “extremely foggy” and visibility was limited.
Just as Schaffner was traveling through the unmarked railroad crossing, Pawk said, someone on the bus shouted loudly, ‘Hey Frank.’”
The driver momentarily looked away. When he turned his head back toward the road, he saw the train for the first time.
“Then he hears the (train) whistle,” Pawk said. “He hits the accelerator and that’s when the train hit the back (driver’s) side of the bus.”
The Allegheny Valley Railroad train had two locomotives and 29 cars.
Claudette Miller, 92, of Callery, who was riding the bus, died of injuries later that afternoon.
An 82-year-old Cranberry Township man remains hospitalized in Pittsburgh with life-threatening injuries, investigators said.
Schaffner and the other passengers were treated at local and area hospital for less serious injuries.
Before he was taken to Butler Memorial Hospital, Schaffner briefly spoke to Evans City police while being examined by paramedics.
Afterward, he declined to sit down with investigators for a formal interview.
“That was under my advice,” Pawk said.
While gathering evidence at the scene, police found pills with Schaffner that didn’t match the two containers they were in, according to court documents.
But the pills weren’t medicines that impaired his client, Pawk noted. The pills were over-the-counter antacid tablets and dietary supplements.
“They were Tums and fiber pills,” the attorney said.
Police later obtained a search warrant to examine the pills. Investigators are awaiting results of toxicology tests on Schaffner’s blood.
McCombs said those reports could be available this week.
Goldinger acknowledged those reports could be the determining factor if Schaffner would face possible criminal or traffic charges.
“Once those tests come back,” he said, “we’ll know more where the investigation’s headed.
Pawk said he and Schaffner are anxious for the results.
“If the toxicology comes back clean,” Pawk said, “I don’t see that criminal charges can be justified. I don’t see a criminal case here. It’s just a tragic accident.”