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Slowed train averted tragedy

Bob Martin drove freight trains for 19 years before becoming a safety and public affairs supervisor for CSX. He has hit a Volkswagen and a semitrailer truck, but he said engineers really have two main fears: hitting a tanker truck and hitting a bus.

"If they hit a flammable truck, are they going to live though it? If you hit a bus with people on it, am I going to live long enough to forget it?" he said Tuesday. "The last thing you see is someone in the vehicle looking back at you just before impact."

It takes a mile to stop a train like the one that slammed into a charter bus Friday afternoon on State Road 50 east of Brooksville. The bus was returning from a field trip in Kissimmee with 42 students and four chaperones from Fox Chapel Middle School.

As the steel wheels screeched against the tracks, the engineer and conductor could only look ahead as children scrambled to get off the bus.

But the worst was averted. The 60-car CSX train bound from Tampa to Louisville had ground from a speed of 50 to 10 or 15 mph and the people on board the bus escaped, some just in the nick of time. The train dragged the bus about 100 yards.

This was the first time in seven years a CSX train had collided with a bus, Martin said. CSX has 22,000 miles of track in 23 states east of the Mississippi River, said spokeswoman Meg Scheu.

On Tuesday there were these developments:

Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Trooper Larry C. Coggins Jr. said the bus had stopped before the railroad crossing and then stalled on the tracks just after starting up. This contradicted some witnesses' claims that the driver, Scott H. Short of Sebring, 31, did not stop at all at the crossing.

Annett Bus Lines general manager Robin Slabe said the driver will not get behind the wheel of a charter until the investigation is over. Slabe said the driver had stayed by the bus to help all the passengers escape, despite statements from witnesses who said Short ran into the woods.

Seventy-five parents and children gathered in the cafeteria of Fox Chapel Middle School on Tuesday night to talk about the accident with representatives from the Sheriff's Office, FHP, and the school board.

"Trauma is terror and I'm sure being on a bus and seeing a train coming at you is terrorizing and traumatic," said Hernando School district trauma specialist, Barbara Smith.

She urged parents to talk to their children or get them to draw pictures of what they remember as a form of therapy. "We don't want anybody, adult or child or school, to feel guilty. Those who need to take responsibility will," she said.

Principal David Schoelles warned parents that the full report from the authorities would not be out for a week so some of their questions would not be answered Tuesday night.

Parents like David Volkes were openly struggling with what to tell their children.

"In a situation like this there are no shades of gray," Volkes said. "My son wants answers and I can't give him any."

And it's not just the students who were traumatized. CSX tries to shield its engineer and conductor from the trauma of reliving the event, said Bob Martin. The Highway Patrol gave out their names as Irvin Padgett III and Scott Hannah, but it was unclear which was the conductor and which was the engineer.

Martin was speaking on their behalf as an experienced driver.

"People aren't aware of the fact these collisions occur," he said. "Once every two hours a motor vehicle and a train come together. That's two fatalities per 24-hour period, on average in the United States."

Logan Neill contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

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