Video from locomotive might show reason for collision

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

The cause of a fatal collision between a locomotive and a Chevrolet might be revealed by a video recording made by the train during the crash at Holts Corner, according to the state trooper dispatched to the scene Saturday morning.

The collision resulted in the death of Wanda Gayle Shirley, 61, of 6238 Nashville Highway in the Holts Corner Community, and her nine-year-old grandson, Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper James Crump reported on Saturday evening.

Shirley's grandson was identified as Michael Polk by a Chapel Hill-area church prayer list posted on the Internet.

Polk was a third grade student at Chapel Hill Elementary School. Carrie Thrasher was his teacher. He lived with his grandmother, as did his two older brothers who attend Forrest School. More than a dozen rushed from their family home to the scene of the crash.

Marshall County provided grief counselors Monday at CHES, officials said.

"Michael's teacher came in Saturday and called all the parents," CHES Principal Dean Delk said. "I think that helped so that the mothers and daddies could tell their children. All the schools have called and Mr. (Roy) Dukes (director of schools) called to offer support. All the schools have been through something similar.

"The grandmother was rock solid," Delk continued. "Grandma wanted to take care of things for everybody; had always been very nice and helpful.

"But, we're OK," the principal said. "Our third grade had a trip planned... Michael would have gone to see 'Alvin and the Chipmunks.' We talked about it and decided that we should keep everything normal."

Also Monday, as the children learned about facing life's trials, Delk's son, David, was in a head-on crash in front of the Breeze In Market on state Route 99 that morning "where it's pretty congested" as commuters go to work, Delk said. "David received some cuts on his head... I'm just glad nobody was hurt bad. Both vehicles were totaled."

Asked why the train and the white 2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo collided, Crump said, "I really don't know. We could know more if CSX let us see the video. I thought we were going to be able to see it at the scene."

CSX Claims Manager Lee Miller, several other CSX representatives - one believed to be an attorney - were at the crash scene, Crump said. The engineer of the train was Grady Nichols, a fact that had to be included in Crump's report. It is a public record. Still, Crump said, Nichols' age and address were not available that day.

During a telephone interview mid-day Saturday, CSX spokesman Gary Sease provided information about the crash from Jacksonville, Fla., where the transportation company's headquarters are located.

The CSX train had two locomotives and 77 empty coal cars, Sease said. It was going from Waycross, Ga., to Atkinson, Ky., and the crash was recorded as at 9:18 a.m. Information from an event recorder would have to be downloaded to determine the train's speed, Sease said. The recorder "takes in data from the locomotive," he said.

Crump reported that Nichols told him that the train's speed was "50 mph on the dot" at the time of the crash.

While speaking about the cause of the crash, Crump said it was undetermined as to whether it was as a result of the car driver's failure to look, or whether the driver erred by thinking that she could get across the tracks before the train came through.

"I don't think they were setting on the tracks," Crump said.

The car was towed to Holder's Body Shop in Lewisburg.

While the crash was reported as still under investigation, Crump said no charges had been filed. Under such circumstances a subpoena could not be filed, he indicated.

Various reports place the crash at Thick Road. Crump and Chapel Hill Police Chief Jackie King said impact was at a private drive.

The Chevrolet was pushed by the train a distance of perhaps 100 feet north, the trooper said emphasizing that was his eyeball estimate. He said various relevant locations were marked with paint so state investigators could gather more specific information this week.

The collision was near the Holts Corner Market, according to Tribune news sources and law enforcement officers.

It was "one car versus the train at a private crossing," Chapel Hill Police Chief Jackie King said by cell phone from the scene.

Sheriff's Deputy Keith Jolley assisted Crump, as did King and Chapel Hill Police Patrolman Chris Cook.

Shirley and Polk were "heading out for Christmas shopping when they stopped to check the mail," according to "Their mailbox is near the railroad tracks."

Trooper Crump responded to the call received by his dispatcher at 9:23 a.m., THP Dispatcher Jennifer Curtis said. Tribune news sources reported the Chapel Hill Fire Department also responded.

Lawrence Funeral Home in Chapel Hill is in charge of arrangements. Visitation was scheduled at 4 p.m. Thursday, with services at 10 a.m. Friday at the mortuary on Horton Highway.