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Car accident on rail tracks sparks review of BN's alert procedure

A motorist whose car rolled across Perham railroad tracks--and then was nearly run over by a freight train--was airlifted to MeritCare Fargo Saturday morning, Oct. 18.

The sequence of events has sparked discussions between East Otter Tail emergency officials and Burlington Northern-Santa Fe representatives over procedures for stopping trains in the event of an incident on the tracks.

The accident occurred about 6:50 a.m., Oct. 18, after a car left the old highway, flew across a deep ditch, and landed across the tracks near the new Barrel O' Fun production facility on the west side of Perham.

The car cleared one set of tracks, but landed on a second set near the Barrel O' Fun parking lot. The driver, a juvenile, was ejected and landed directly on a separate set of tracks.

Burlington Northern was called immediately, according to Jim Rieber, Perham Emergency Services director.

"We have a phone number we call if something is on the tracks," said Rieber. "I called a second time to confirm, and I was informed that there was a shut down order to halt trains through Perham."

When a set of locomotive headlights appeared on the eastern horizon--rumbling full speed into Perham--emergency crews scrambled to get the car accident victim off the tracks.

"We were still working to stabilize the victim when we saw the train coming," said Rieber. "We moved him off the tracks within two minutes of the train coming through."

"It was nervewracking," said Perham Police Department officer Ron Smith, who was one of the first at the scene.

The westbound train had rolled nearly to downtown Perham by the time the tracks were hastily cleared. Meanwhile, Perham Volunteer Fire Department crews--fearing another train would descend on the scene--pulled the wrecked vehicle from the other set of tracks.

"The train, which was supposed to be stopped, hadn't even slowed down," said Rieber.

BN staff went through the recorded tapes to determine whether there was a breakdown in the system. According to Rieber, the message to halt trains through Perham made it through the dispatcher, but the message wasn't conveyed to the train engineer until about nine minutes later. He evidently received the halt order just as he arrived at the accident scene.

The victim, who was only identified as an Ottertail-area juvenile, was transported to Perham Memorial Hospital. He was then airlifted to Fargo with a fractured leg and broken ribs, said Rieber. As of Monday, the juvenile remained hospitalized in Fargo.

"This has been an opportunity to get together and check the entire process," said Rieber. "We opened up the channels of communication with the railroad, and we can look at this procedure from a bigger picture."