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Man killed while trying to outrace train

Witnesses say the man drove around two cars waiting at the crossing. The train pushed the car 200 yards down the track.

A man was killed Saturday morning when his car got stuck on the railroad tracks east of Zephyrhills and was struck by an oncoming train.

According to witnesses and the Florida Highway Patrol, the man, headed east on County Road 54 at 8:20 a.m., tried to beat the CSX train, even though the gates blocking the crossing had been down for about a minute.

Highway patrol investigators said the man, whose name they did not release because his next of kin hadn't been notified, drove around two cars that had stopped for the train. He steered his small, blue compact car left across the westbound lane and onto the shoulder of the road, then slammed on his brakes as he approached the gravel embankment bordering the tracks.

But with the train fast approaching, the man became stuck on the tracks, the highway patrol said. His front wheels were hooked around one set of rails, and his rear wheels were hooked around the other, the highway patrol said.

Witnesses said the CSX engineer blew his horn twice as he applied the brakes, but couldn't stop in time.

"There's nothing you can do," CSX Transportation spokesman Mike Tolbert said. "It takes a mile to stop a train."

The train, powered by two locomotives that were carrying 90 empty coal hoppers, was headed to Jacksonville, Tolbert said. It was traveling 48 mph in a 60-mph hour zone, he said.

Witnesses described the sound of the impact as a "subtle thump." The train pushed the small car about 200 yards down the track before coming to a stop.

"It looked like the guy took a chance and didn't make it," said Tim Holland, 32, who lives beside the tracks and heard the collision.

Kenny Williams was standing in Holland's yard and saw the train pushing the car down the tracks. He said he knew the driver had been killed.

"Trains ain't nothing to play with," he said.

Hours later, the front right side of the crumpled car was still pinned under the lead engine's snow plow. The car had no license plate. A sticker on the dashboard read, "Mentally confused and prone to wandering."

The train did not leave the tracks. But for a few scratches and flecks of blue paint from the victim's car, the train was not damaged.

"These things are preventable if people obey the law and use common sense," said Tolbert. "People need to realize that when they run across the cross arms, they're going to lose every time."

The engineer stood beside the wreckage Saturday morning and shook his head.

"This is not how I planned to spend my morning," the engineer said, declining to give his name.

Tolbert declined to release the engineer's name, citing company policy. Highway patrol investigators hadn't released the engineer's name as of Saturday afternoon.