Friday, June 16, was a regular day for traffic at Chicot Road, one of Pascagoula’s busier streets. Few of the dozens of drivers who crossed the CSX tracks near U.S. 90 bothered to look either way or slow down as they crossed.
At first blush, that doesn’t seem like a dangerous practice. Unlike most railroad crossings on the Coast, Chicot Road has a full complement of warning devices: bells, gates and two sets of lights.
But a collision between a train and car at Chicot later that afternoon illustrates the inherent peril of the rails to motorists, no matter how well the crossing is marked.
The crossing’s one peculiarity can’t really be helped without moving the tracks. They are about 100 feet south of U.S. 90, which the line parallels. During rush hour, motorists northbound on Chicot have to wait for the stoplight at U.S. 90 to turn green, and they often back up to or beyond the tracks.
The crossing bells at Chicot started ringing just before 3:30 p.m. The lights flashed. The gates went down.
Billie Jo Robinson of Pascagoula was northbound on Chicot, on her way to a Checkers fast-food restaurant on U.S. 90 to buy a hot dog. Traffic waiting for the light on U.S. 90 was backed up in front of her, but she managed to inch her Toyota Corolla station wagon forward until she was sure it had cleared the tracks.
“Am I cool?” she asked her boyfriend, in the car with her.
“Yeah, you’re cool,” he responded. The train approached, traveling at a standard 40 mph.
Later, outside the Pascagoula police station, Robinson recalled: “All of a sudden, the car behind me started blowing the horn, blowing the horn, and I look behind me and there’s a car on the track.”
Other witnesses, though, said Robinson was blocking both lanes of traffic beyond the crossing, preventing the car behind her from moving off the tracks.
Dana Jackson, a 20-year-old from Jackson County, was driving the 1984 Ford Mustang behind Robinson. Jackson and her three passengers were on their way home from visiting relatives.
Later, several witnesses said the warning gates had come down and Jackson drove around them. Jackson said she was on the tracks when the gates came down.
In any case, once she was in the crossing, Jackson had no room to move. The rear end of her Mustang protruded onto the rails.
The train’s engineer yanked on the emergency brakes, but it was nearly at the crossing. Two of Jackson’s passengers jumped out of the car just before impact.
The train plowed into the rear driver’s side of the Mustang. The car spun around and came to a rest just north of the crossing. The train slowed, brakes squealing. Jackson got out of her car and staggered about, holding her head with one arm and the third passenger, a 10-month-old baby, with the other.
Motorists stopped and gaped. Customers at a nearby gas station sprinted toward the scene.
Police arrived two minutes later, trailed closely by Mobile Medic ambulances. Patrolman Steve Eaker arrived on a motorcycle and began to sift out the details while paramedics loaded Jackson and the baby into an ambulance and took them to Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula.
Police herded witnesses to one side and questioned them.
The train, a CSX freight, had left New Orleans at 9:13 that morning. Its two engines pulled 34 cars, some holding freight, but most empty. Still, the train weighed about 2,000 tons.
In the aftermath of the accident, investigative duties were split between police and the railroad. Police could question and decipher the actions of motorists and, to a degree, the train crew. But CSX has jurisdiction over the railway and reserved the right to examine the train, including its event recorder, which measures train speed.
The broken glass and plastic at the scene was swept up quickly. Chicot Road was reopened to traffic at 3:45. At 3:50, a tow truck hauled the battered Mustang off. Its tail was caved in, its rear axle bent. A rear tire, locked into place by the collision, squealed on the asphalt as the wrecker dragged the car away.
The train started back up and was clear of the crossing at 4:10. By 4:15, a CSX signalman had arrived at the scene to inspect the crossing. Among his duties was to check the “island circuits,” recording devices located in the control box near the crossing.
His findings: The lights began flashing and bells started ringing 27 seconds before the train reached the crossing. Twenty-five to 30 seconds is standard; it’s judged to be ample time for a motorist to stop.
At the police station, Eaker kept interviewing witnesses. Robinson arrived. Eaker told her that police considered her part of the accident, even though her car was undamaged. Some witnesses had said she was obstructing traffic, Eaker told her.
“Can I ask you one thing?” Robinson said. “How was I obstructing traffic?”
Said Eaker: “According to witnesses ... you had plenty of room to move up. Now, that’s witnesses saying that. That’s not me saying that.”
Robinson maintained that she had pulled up as far as she could without hitting the car in front of her. She left the station.
Jackson and the baby, Lea Williams, were treated and released from Singing River later that day. The collision had slammed Jackson’s head on the steering wheel or dashboard, giving her a nasty cut on the forehead that took 27 stitches to close.
Jackson’s lawyer, Earl Denham of Ocean Springs, said Sunday he is preparing to file a lawsuit. He would not say when or against whom, because the suit has not been filed.
But he also said, “They had a long way to stop before they hit her and they didn’t. They’re going to try to say that she drove around the gates, and that isn’t true.”
The baby was bruised in the accident. “She’s been real fussy since it happened,” her mother, Crystal Lett, said from her Moss Point home the following Monday. “And she’s not a real fussy baby.”
She and the rest of the people in the Mustang were lucky.
If the car had sat on the tracks a few more feet to the south, said witness Donnie Miller, “they’d have all been dead.”
Read the series:
When vehicles collide, danger reigns; when autos gamble with trains and time