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Thursday November 2, 2000

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Authorities probe train crash while search continues for missing

By The Associated Press

BELLEMONT, Ariz. - Railroad officials searched for clues yesterday to the cause of a fiery train crash that left a tangle of crumpled and charred engines and freight cars sprawled across the snowy landscape.

Authorities also continued looking for a crew member who has been missing since a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe freight train rear-ended another that had stopped on the tracks about 10 miles west of Flagstaff. Three other crew members were hurt, one critically.

Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards said searchers assumed the missing person was dead. "It doesn't look good right now," he said.

Railroad spokesman Steven Forsberg said it wasn't unusual for trains to be sharing tracks, or for a train to stop on them. Dispatchers work to keep trains separated, but the railroad will examine data and physical evidence and interview the crew members to determine what happened during the accident, he said.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator was also at the scene. Railroad officials said a cause probably won't be known for some time.

The trains crashed Tuesday, crumpling engines and cars and pushing several off the tracks. Three locomotives burst into flames and thousands of gallons of diesel fuel burned, sending flames licking into the sky through the night.

"It sounded like a small explosion," said Jeff Kosmicki, a rental company manager who lives about a half mile from the wreck. "The dogs went nuts like there was something going on. They were just uncontrollable."

Kosmicki and his family were among the 15 families evacuated to a truck stop and then a hotel in Williams as a precaution.

The parked train was carrying a small amount of hazardous materials but there was never a spill. All of the evacuated residents were allowed to return yesterday.

"It's kind of scary," Kosmicki said.

Chris Lavy, a construction worker from Bellemont, had gone to the nearby Navajo Army depot to take his two daughters trick-or-treating when he heard the explosion and saw flames.

"I can't win the lottery, but what are the odds of someone wrecking a train with hazardous materials right there to make us evacuate?" he said.

Firefighters put out the remaining fires yesterday afternoon. Railroad workers were clearing out derailed cars and getting the tracks ready to reopen today.

Sheriff's spokesman Tom Florman said searchers would wait for the locomotives to cool off before they went in to look for the last crew member from the trailing train.

A Winslow resident who was the engineer of the rear train was listed in critical condition yesterday at the burn unit at Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix. Two crew members from the standing train were treated at Flagstaff Medical Center and released Tuesday.

Interstate 40, the main east-west route through northern Arizona, was reopened after being closed through the night.

The first train was headed from Alliance, Texas, to Los Angeles. The trailing train, which wasn't carrying hazardous materials, was headed from Chicago to Richmond, Calif.