OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Experts speculated Tuesday that a fiery head-on collision of two trains in the Oklahoma Panhandle was likely the result of human error, though federal investigators are still piecing together evidence and haven't determined a cause.
Three crew members were killed when the Union Pacific trains slammed into each other Sunday morning just east of Goodwell, about 300 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. The crash triggered a diesel-fueled fireball that appeared to weld the locomotives together.
The "very badly burned" remains of the victims have been sent to the medical examiner's office in Oklahoma City, agency spokeswoman Amy Elliott said Tuesday. The only other rail worker on the trains at the time of the crash managed to jump free before the collision and suffered only cuts and bruises.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it appears signals were working properly at the time of the wreck, and that one of the trains passing through the flat landscape should have pulled onto a side track. The NTSB said there was "no survivable space" in the locomotives' cabins following the collision.
The NTSB could release a preliminary report within two weeks, though it could be a year before a final report is available, NTSB official Mark Rosekind said.
Former Federal Railroad Administration official Gil Carmichael said Tuesday that it was "very unusual" for such a collision on such flat landscape. He said it sounded like one of the crew members made an error.
Bob Jarvis, a transportation law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., noted that human error can go beyond the train crew.
"In those kinds of accidents you really start to think about who let these two trains leave the yard. Who was monitoring? That's likely going to be human error back where the pretty lights (of a communications center) are," Jarvis said. "Was there a technical failure in the control room or was somebody not watching?"
"But something can happen with the signals, too," added Carmichael, who now works with the University of Denver's Intermodal Transportation Institute.
"The signal system is not foolproof," said retired Burlington Northern-Santa Fe train engineer John Hiatt, who is now a rail-accident investigator with a Minnesota law firm.
NTSB investigators said they were still gathering data to figure out what happened, including why one of the trains failed to pull onto a side track as the other train approached on the main line.
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