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Crashes traumatize train engineers: union

(CBC News circulated the following on May 7, 2010.)

OTTAWA — Train engineers sometimes never return to work after crashes with vehicles like the one that killed an Edmonton man and his two daughters, a CN engineer and union president says.

On Tuesday, John Baxter and his daughters Julianne Rose, 9, and Coral Sky, 7, were killed when their truck collided with a Via Rail passenger train at a level crossing in Edmonton's west end.

Rick Cerilli, local chair of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, said the incident brings back memories of the three crashes he's experienced in his 33-year career.

"I can remember those faces," Cerilli said.

One crash was fatal. A dozen years ago, Cerilli's train hit a truck driven by a 79-year-old man.

"He was approaching the crossing. He was coming to a stop, just coasting up, but just continued right into our path," he said.

When a train is going 65 to 95 kilometres an hour, it is impossible for engineers to stop in time.

"All you can do is just basically watch it unfold," Cerilli said.

The train pushed the man's vehicle down the track for half a kilometre before it was able to stop. The man later died in hospital.

That crash was the last straw for the other engineer in the locomotive. He was so distressed he's never driven a train since, Cerilli said.

Incident triggered a flashback

Cerilli went back to work almost immediately, believing he had recovered from the trauma. But a few months later, something he saw in a movie triggered a flashback to the day of the crash.

"There was a hand on the screen. The hand had some blood on it …when we actually got to the vehicle, that was one of the things that I saw," Cerilli said.

The two engineers on the Via train Tuesday have been offered counselling as well as support from other engineers who have faced the same situation.

Cerilli has also offered his help and hopes the engineers will be back on the job soon.

Investigation continues

Investigators continue to examine evidence surrounding Tuesday's collision.

Edmonton police are also investigating why the CN southbound crossing arm wasn't damaged in the collision.

The Alberta Transportation Safety Board will also examine past CN test results done on the Winterburn crossing.

Board investigators usually look at video shot from the train when analyzing such cases, said Art Nordholm, a senior investigator with the agency.

But the Via train involved in Tuesday's collision wasn't equipped with a camera.

Only a small number of Via's trains are equipped with cameras, a company spokesperson told CBC News.

The company plans to install them on all trains by the end of 2012.

Steve Harvey, a manager of safety for GO Transit in Ontario, told CBC News cameras have been on that company's trains for seven years. They are a valuable asset when investigating accidents, he said.

"The camera in itself truly is an unbiased witness," Harvey said.

"Certainly it will allow us to see whether crossing devices are functioning."

A funeral will be held Tuesday afternoon at the Westlawn Memorial Gardens and Howard and McBride Funeral Home in Edmonton for Baxter and his daughters.

Baxter is survived by his wife Alana and their 2½-year-old son John Jr. A trust fund has also been set up for the toddler.

Donations can be made through the Alberta Treasury Branch.

Monday, May 10, 2010

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