TX - Signal errors known days before collision

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Updated: Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2001 at 21:26 CDT

Signal errors known days before collision By Melody McDonald and Deanna Boyd Star-Telegram staff writers

FORT WORTH -- The signal at a railroad crossing where a Fort Worth man was killed when a train hit his car Tuesday night had malfunctioned sporadically for several days, police and people familiar with the crossing said Wednesday.

Witnesses told police that the track's crossing arms and signal lights did not alert drivers to the approaching train before Terry E. Orrick, 49, drove across the tracks in the 1800 block of Forest Park Boulevard North about 6:50 p.m.

The Fort Worth & Western Railroad locomotive struck Orrick's 1984 yellow Cadillac Eldorado on the driver's side, instantly killing the American Airlines engineer.

"At this stage in the investigation, I don't have any doubt that the primary cause of this incident was the fact that the railroad signals and crossing arm were not functioning," said Sgt. Anne Cummings, supervisor of the police traffic investigation unit.

Bob Lavery, general manager of the railroad, referred questions to Sandra Nations, a company spokeswoman. Nations referred calls to the railroad's owner, Bill Davis, who did not return messages left at his office and home.

Orrick's sons noted the irony that a faulty railroad crossing caused their father's death because his life -- professional and personal -- revolved around safety.

He took his engineering job at Alliance Airport seriously, and safety was always on his mind, said his sons, Brian Orrick, 25, and Rob Orrick, 27.

"He would walk around and see a pin missing from a landing gear and would track down who it belonged to because he didn't want an unsafe plane taking off," Brian Orrick said.

And before taking the job at Alliance Airport, he worked as a traffic safety systems engineer, designing the equipment that controlled traffic lights throughout Dallas and Fort Worth, his sons said.

The sons said Orrick was equally cautious at the west Fort Worth home he shared with his wife, Landa. When he left the house, even just to check for mail, he always set the alarm system; he rarely drove above the speed limit and often talked to his family about unsafe practices, the sons said.

"About six months ago, we had this long conversation about railroad tracks and how dangerous they are," Brian Orrick said.

After the wreck, police investigators received dozens of calls from motorists reporting that the lights had been malfunctioning since Friday, Cummings said.

Before the collision, police had received two calls about the malfunctioning signal, Lt. Duane Paul, a police spokesman, said. One came from an unidentified person at 9:07 a.m. Friday and the other was from a police officer at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Paul said.

Paul said the police communications office advised Fort Worth & Western Railroad, which owns the track and signal, about the malfunction, but he did not know Wednesday how the company had responded.

Employees at nearby businesses confirmed reports of problems at the crossing.

Traffic was backed up on Forest Park Boulevard much of the day Friday and Tuesday because the crossing arms were down although no train was evident, they said.

"People were picking the arm up and driving through or going around," said Sherri Brawley, 28, a patient account representative for Cook Children's Physician Network at 1812 N. Forest Park Blvd. "There have been lots of problems. This was not the first time."

Jackie Matlock, who often travels Forest Park Boulevard, called 911 about 7:15 a.m. Tuesday after the malfunctioning signal created a traffic jam. The lights were flashing and the crossing arms were down even though no train was in sight, she said.

Eventually, Matlock said, a driver got out of his vehicle and manually raised the arms to let traffic through.

Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the agency is investigating the accident.

"When there are incidents with reports that warning devices malfunctioned, we investigate," Flatau said.


-- Doris (nocents@bellsouth.net), April 26, 2001

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