Phyllis Leblanc frantically honked her horn at a car in front of her on La. 88 as she tried both to pull forward and back off the railroad tracks before a passenger train crashed into the front of her vehicle, killing her and four of her five passengers, according to a State Police report released Tuesday.
The Dec. 22 crash in Iberia Parish was witnessed by Jillian Lockhart, a dispatcher with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office. She had just left work on the dark and stormy night and saw what happened from the turning lane on La. 182, which intersects with La. 88 just 35 feet from the railroad tracks, according to the report.
She described seeing Leblanc’s car stopped on the tracks when the crossing gates came down behind her and said the 70-year-old woman “lay” on the horn at the car in front of her as she pulled her Ford Taurus forward to try to clear the track.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Lockhart said she contacted her colleagues immediately after the crash, then checked on all six victims.
“There was one little boy who was awake and speaking to me,” Lockhart said, referring to one of Leblanc’s twin 12-year-old grandsons — the only passenger who survived his injuries after all six were ejected from the vehicle. Lockhart and the train’s conductor, 56-year-old Brian Stanga, stayed with the boy until medics arrived, Lockhart said.
The Amtrak train’s assistant engineer, 43-year-old Tyrone Clark — who was in physical control of the train during the crash while Stanga was in the passenger area — told State Police troopers he saw Leblanc’s vehicle stopped on the tracks as the two-engine, seven-car train approached. He said he saw Leblanc back the car up but stop short of crashing into the crossarm behind her.
Clark activated the emergency brake just prior to the crash while traveling an estimated 68 mph, according to the train’s data recorder cited in the report. The train continued another 533 yards — or about 51?3 football fields — before coming to a halt with only minor damage to the front and right side of the lead engine.
Leblanc’s Taurus flipped multiple times and came to rest against a tree about 60 yards from the crash site, its trunk and engine dislodged from the mangled vehicle.
Neither witness indicated whether there was another vehicle behind Leblanc’s on La. 88, on the other side of the crossing arm. State Police said video recorded from the train’s lead engine showed Leblanc’s car was stopped on the tracks but included no further details, and the video was not included with the report that was publicly released.
Although the crossing is equipped with a railroad-crossing sign and a sign warning drivers against stopping on the tracks — along with crossing gates, flashing red lights and bells the police report says were working at the time of the crash — there’s been at least one crash there each year since 2012 that involved a vehicle stopped on the tracks, according to Federal Railroad Administration accident reports accessible through its online database.
The administration is conducting an independent investigation into the December crash, which marks the first fatalities at the crossing in more than a decade. Administration spokesman Marc Willis said Tuesday the investigation likely will take months to complete.
The intersection is one of several in the area that parish officials consider problematic.
At the intersection of La. 182 and Airport Boulevard, which feeds traffic from the Acadiana Regional Airport, tractor-trailers often have no choice but to stop on the tracks while waiting to turn onto the highway. A few miles south, at La. 3212, the railroad crossing is near not only the highway intersection but to a third road that leads into the city limits.
About 1,300 other intersections with similar configurations exist across the state, indicating aged highway designs built along even older railroad lines and further developed as traffic patterns developed with populations. But the ultimate fix — eliminating the crossing completely by elevating the roadway, in a process called “grade separation” — is cost-prohibitive, both parish and state officials have said.
Some railroad safety experts say one measure that could have prevented December’s tragedy is a traffic signal at La. 182 and La. 88 linked by sensors to approaching trains. The sensors would trigger the light to turn green as the crossing guard lowers, allowing any vehicle in front of a car stopped on the track to move forward and out of the way.
The State Department of Transportation and Development is considering an intersection study at the railroad crossing, spokesperson Deidra Druillhet said on Tuesday. But state transportation officials have said in previous interviews the parish intersection is not included in about $1.2 million already earmarked for crossing safety upgrades in Iberia Parish.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.