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Railroaders' Nostalgia > The Five Second Mystery in San Lorenzo

Date: 03/25/17 10:29
The Five Second Mystery in San Lorenzo
Author: Westbound

For me, it all began the morning before at the busy High Street crossing in Oakland, CA. On January 16, 1998, a large food vending van (“roach coach” to the elite) was approaching the Union Pacific (old SP) mainline crossing when the driver suddenly realized that traffic was stopped ahead of him and he was about to rear-end the last car in line. He whipped the van into the oncoming traffic lane which was free of traffic since it was all stopped by the crossing gates on the other side of the crossing. He locked the brakes and skidded onto the tracks just in time to strike the leading corner of the 35 mph locomotive, which flipped the van onto its side and spun it around, throwing at least a gallon of mustard and all kinds of other food and utensils everywhere on the crossing. Both the driver and his two workers in the kitchen were injured and left the scene in two ambulances.

 I handled the investigation there but in follow-up was unable to locate one of the kitchen workers. The next day was Saturday and although not on-call (which explains why I knew nothing of what had happened just minutes before leaving home) needed to complete this investigative aspect as required. That afternoon I left my house to go back to the worker's home address in San Leandro and determine her condition and location. Taking the most direct way, I headed west and drove through unincorporated San Lorenzo on normally quiet two lane Blossom Way. As I passed over the old SP mainline crossing on the Niles line everything looked normal except for a handful of people standing around the crossing looking south. I looked too and noticed a train standing more than ¼ mile away. I pulled over to the curb and called the train on the radio to find out why it was stopped. 

The train was one of the Amtrak Capitol Corridors consisting of a locomotive and 5 passenger cars. The conductor radioed back that they had struck a vehicle a few minutes ago and had a fatality. I grabbed the equipment I needed and walked down the access road to the head end, noting a California Highway Patrol car parked half-way there and a small group of bystanders looking at a small red pickup truck which was wrapped tightly around the front of the locomotive. At that time the UP still had responsibility for investigating Amtrak involved accidents, which would continue for another year.  

And now the mystery... Some 15 minutes earlier, 61 year old San Lorenzo resident Frank had completed some errands and was driving back to his home. He was driving west on Blossom Way when the crossing lights, bells and gates were activated by this train. He stopped, first in line at the crossing and waited some 20 seconds before this 75 mph train arrived and roared past. There were no vehicles stopped traveling east. He had often seen trains here and this one was not different. Having no interest in trains and knowing he was quite safe where he was stopped, he simply relaxed and allowed his mind to wander until the train passed and he could resume his drive.  

When Frank reached home he gradually began to feel uneasy and not well. He did not think he was getting sick but told his wife that things were not right. He began to think something strange may have occurred on his drive back but he could not recall what it was. Both he and his wife decided to try and solve this mystery by retracing his drive home, but this time she drove as he did not feel he could. By the time they reached the crossing there were more vehicles stopped and a small crowd had gathered.  

As I walked back to speak with signal maintainer Dick Burns, who had been dispatched to the crossing and had just arrived, I saw Frank for the first time. His car was parked near the tracks and he was sitting motionless in the front passenger seat, looking numb and in shock. He had just learned what had happened.  Over the course of those 5 seconds required for the train to pass through the crossing, the red pickup that he had only seen approaching before the train arrived, had smashed through the crossing gate, been struck broadside by the train and been carried down the tracks out of his sight. The engineer had been blowing the horn all the way into the crossing and never had the chance to apply the brakes before impact since his view was blocked by trees and structures. The moment the train cleared the crossing, the gate in front of Frank went up and the warning devices automatically turned off, as if nothing beyond the ordinary had occurred. No other vehicles were stopped so nothing seemed amiss.  

Maintainer Burns, with his years of experience, quickly found the missing gate broken nearby in the weeds. The missing gate would have been the one thing Frank might have noticed that was different as he drove over the crossing. What apparently triggered Frank's mysterious episode was that he realized that he had seen the red pickup approaching the tracks but just 5 seconds later there was no trace of it - something one might only expect of an illusion performed by a magician.

Date: 03/27/17 20:30
Re: The Five Second Mystery in San Lorenzo
Author: mococomike

Interesting story. How were you able to get Frank's story and did you ever find your missing roach coach worker?

Date: 03/27/17 21:42
Re: The Five Second Mystery in San Lorenzo
Author: Westbound

Good questions. Other than the locomotive engineer, Frank was the only eye-witness. He first gave his story to the CHP officer who interviewed him there at the scene. Our (UP) on-call investigator arrived at about that time and arranged with Frank to meet him at his home on another day, when he would feel better. The reason we would still need to interview him in depth was that our questions would include some specific things that the CHP would probably not ask. As an example - did he observe the crossing gate arm for eastbound traffic in the lowered position as the train approached (showing that it had not been broken off in an earlier accident).

I found the roach coach (I hesitate to call it that since I have had some pretty good sandwiches from a couple of these vendors) worker at her home that afternoon. She came to the front door looking and walking fine, stating she had been released from the hospital that morning. Considering how she must have been tumbled about in that tiny kitchen in a vehicle the size of a UPS delivery van, she could only be described as most fortunate.

mococomike Wrote:
> Interesting story. How were you able to get  Frank's story and did you ever find your missing roach coach worker?

Date: 03/29/17 05:34
Re: The Five Second Mystery in San Lorenzo
Author: DFWJIM

Thanks for sharing your story; I especially enjoyed it since I used to live right next to this line in Hayward just north of Harder Avenue. The neighborhood was not the best so it seemed like vandals were always putting debris (Safeway shopping carts seemed to be the favorite) on the tracks for Amtrak and SP/UP freights to strike. One day I was coming home from work and saw an Amtrak train stopped and some emergency vehicles parked a few hundred feet in front of it. I did some investigating and discovered that  teenagers had stolen a car earlier in the day and decided to park it on the tracks for a train to hit Fortunately all ended well as the car was towed off the tracks with minimal damage to the vehicle.

Just another day in the East Bay...LOL

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