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Train engineer's vision problems led to deadly Oklahoma wreck, NTSB rules

Investigators say a train engineer couldn't read key signals before an Oklahoma wreck that killed three last year.
BY CHRIS CASTEEL ccasteel@opubco.com Modified: June 18, 2013 at 8:07 pm •  Published: June 18, 2013
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— Two years before his failing vision likely contributed to a fatal crash in the Oklahoma Panhandle, freight train engineer Dan Hall told one of his eye doctors that he was having trouble distinguishing the color of train signals.

Hall had multiple eye conditions — going back to his childhood — that had escalated in the months before the June 2012 crash of two Union Pacific trains near Goodwell. In a 33-month period between 2009 and the crash, Hall went to his personal physician and eye specialists 50 times.

And in 2009, he failed the eye tests required to keep his job.

Hall cleared a subsequent test and was the engineer of a train heading east through Oklahoma last June 24 as a westbound Union Pacific train approached. Hall's train raced past signals meant to slow and then stop his train, and the trains collided at a combined speed of 79 miles per hour.

Hall and his conductor, Brian Stone, were killed, as was John Hall, the engineer on the other train; the two engineers were not related. Juan Zurita, the conductor on the westbound train, leapt off just before impact.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash for nearly a year and determined Tuesday that the probable causes were Dan Hall's vision problems and Stone's failure to provide the backup assistance required of a conductor.

Also contributing, according to the five-person board, was the absence of a safety system in the area called Positive Train Control. Having the system in place would have prevented the collision, which caused a massive, diesel-fueled fire and nearly $15 million in property damage, the board's staff said.

At a hearing Tuesday, board members also pointed to the railroad industry's lax medical standards compared with the airline and trucking industries.

“They've put their head in the sand for far too long,” board Chairman Deborah Hersman said.

Three crew members were obese

NTSB's chief medical officer, Mary Pat McKay, said train operators only have to undergo hearing and vision tests. Operators can have all types of medical conditions and be taking a host of medications — including ones that make them drowsy — and their employing train company wouldn't necessarily know it.

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