February 25, 2018
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Poliquin avoids serious injury in train crash that left one dead

By Hawes Spencer, Martine Powers, Faiz Siddiqui and Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post
Updated:

CROZET, Virginia – One person was killed and at least five were injured when an Amtrak train carrying Republican lawmakers to an annual party conference in West Virginia collided with a truck at about 11:20 a.m. Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District, was aboard the train but escaped serious injury. Poliquin spokesman Brendan Conley said the second-term congressman was OK “with a few minor bruises.”

The White House confirmed the fatality. One person was seriously injured, the White House said.

“The president has been fully briefed on the situation in Virginia and is receiving regular updates,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “There are no serious injuries among members of Congress or their staff.”

Sanders said White House officials were in touch with Amtrak, state and local officials. “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone that has been affected by this incident,” she said.

Amtrak also said no one on the train was seriously injured, although five people – two crew members and three passengers – were transported to a hospital with minor injuries, according to a spokeswoman. It was a 10-car train, Amtrak said, but the number of passengers aboard was not immediately known.

Federal Railroad Administration responders went to Crozet to aid National Transportation Safety Board investigators, a U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman said.

The chartered train was carrying members of the House and Senate, some of their spouses and children and aides, although it was not immediately clear which members were onboard.

“We appear to have hit a garbage truck,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who was reached by telephone on board the train.

“It looks like it’s been maybe cut in half. We can see garbage strewn around, and we can see the back half of the truck. There was a feeling of an impact, and you could feel we had hit something. It took us maybe a quarter mile to stop.”

A resident who lives near the scene said the truck belonged to Time Disposal.

Albemarle County spokeswoman Madeline Curott confirmed that three people were on the Time Disposal truck, including the person who was killed.

The rail agency said local law enforcement officials were investigating “and inspecting the equipment for damage.”

“Congressional officials, including the United States Capitol Police, are on the scene and are working closely with partner law enforcement agencies in response to the incident,” the agency said.

A few people on the train were “roughed up,” Lee said. “Most of us hit a knee or a head on the seat in front of us, but nothing too serious on board. I’m not sure about the driver of the truck yet.”

The crash was “loud and surprising,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, said. “Some minor bumps and bruises in this car. We saw debris go by the left side of the train. The part of the truck we can see was decimated. Very relieved when the train came to a stop and still on the tracks.”

“It was a hard impact. It threw everybody up in the air a little. I don’t think anybody on the train is seriously injured, but I may be wrong,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona.

Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minnesota, was taken to a hospital near the crash site as a precaution due to the impact of the train. A House GOP aide said the move was part of “standard concussion protocol.”

Flake, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, joined medical personnel in carrying one of the injured passengers to an ambulance. Flake and Wenstrup did almost the same thing last summer in the shooting at a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia.

Flake said his wife and 18-year old son were with him and are OK.

Republican lawmakers were scheduled to arrive at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, later Wednesday and hear from Vice President Mike Pence. President Donald Trump was scheduled to address the group Thursday.

Crozet is about 110 miles southwest of Washington and 90 miles east of White Sulphur Springs.

According to a statement from Amtrak, the train struck a vehicle on the track about 11:20 a.m.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said the collision happened without warning, while many members were up and milling around on the train. There was no perceptible braking before the crash, he said.

“It was quite a jolt,” he said. “It was just, ‘bam.’ “

Immediately after the crash, Cole said, many members who are also doctors tried to leave the train to render assistance to the three men who were on the trash truck. Security officials on the train discouraged them from getting off the train, he said, but ultimately several members left the train, including Wenstrup as well as GOP Reps. Michael Burgess of Texas, Phil Roe of Tennessee and Roger Marshall of Kansas.

“They were very insistent,” Cole said. “Anybody who had any [medical] training was moving quickly.”

After the crash, the lead car of the train was uncoupled from the other cars and will remain on the scene for investigators to assess. The rest of the train carried members of Congress and the other passengers back to Charlottesville Union Station. They arrived at about 1:30 p.m.

Events of the retreat would go on as scheduled “with an adjusted program,” the Congressional Institute said.

The program will now include a moment of prayer for those involved in the incident and a security briefing from the Sergeant at Arms and U.S. Capitol Police.

The members will continue to Greenbrier from Charlottesville via bus.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the incident a “terrible tragedy.” He wrote on Twitter: “We are grateful for the first responders who rushed to the scene and we pray for the victims and their families. May they all be in our thoughts right now.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the crash.

“My condolences, and those of the entire Senate family, go out to the victim’s family, friends, and coworkers,” McConnell said. “Our prayers are with the other accident victims who are fighting to recover from their injuries.”

The segment of tracks where the collision occurred is owned by CSX Transportation but is leased to Buckingham Branch Railroad – the company that “is responsible for maintenance, signaling and dispatching train traffic on the line,” a CSX spokesman said.

Carrie Brown, a spokeswoman for Buckingham Branch Railroad, said in a statement that Buckingham Branch personnel are assisting at the scene of the collision.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, motorists and crew members impacted by this,” Brown said.

The crash occurred in a rural area at the Route 684/Lanetown Road crossing in Crozet, at what is known as an “active crossing” involving gates, flashing lights and a “hump” warning sign for approaching drivers.

The thoroughfare runs parallel to the railroad on both sides with a sharp curve into the raised crossing. The direction from which the truck was approaching was not immediately known.

The Virginia Department of Transportation, which oversees grade crossings at highways in Virginia, said there have been three reported crashes within 250 feet of the crossing since 2007. Wednesday’s was the first to involve a train or resulted in injury, however, VDOT spokeswoman Shannon Marshall said.

In 2016, Marshall said, the driver of a pickup truck hit the crossing gate and fled. Also that year, a distracted driver ran off the road to avoid workers about 100 feet from the crossing.

The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis in Charlottesville and Lori Aratani and Michael Laris in Washington contributed to this report.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd also contributed.

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