CANTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. – An Amtrak passenger train carrying about 170 people struck a car that had skirted a gate at a road crossing near Detroit on Thursday, killing all five people in the sedan, authorities said. The victims were believed to be teens.
The crossing has a gate and flashing lights that apparently were working when the car approached, said Sgt. Mark Gajeski, a police spokesman. Based on witness accounts, "it looks like they probably did go around the arm. They went around the gate," Gajeski said.
The crash occurred around 12:30 p.m. in Canton Township, about 20 miles west of Detroit, police Sgt. Craig Wilsher said. He said the vehicle was heading north when it crossed the train tracks and was struck. The train typically travels about 67 miles per hour at the site of the crash, Gajeski said.
"All of a sudden, there was a thunk," said Alice McCardell, 45, of Dearborn, who was taking the train to a library conference in Chicago. "You knew you hit something but you didn't know what."
The car was broadsided and pushed down the tracks. It crumpled underneath the front of the train and ended up right-side up, its roof and front crushed. Gajeski said the car was pushed about a mile from one road crossing to another.
The victims were believed to be four males, ages 17 and 18, and a 14-year-old female, Gajeski said, based on who the registered owner said was supposed to be in the car at the time. All five were from outside the western Wayne County community, but police weren't releasing identities.
Tammy Sadler, 45, said her 14-year-old daughter, Jessica Sadler, was among those killed. Tammy Sadler was at her parents' Canton Township home — less than a mile from the accident site — Thursday night, where her family has been staying while moving from Taylor to Wyandotte.
Sadler told the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News that she had told her daughter to hurry home instead of going to the beach with her boyfriend.
"I told her she was going to be in trouble," Sadler said, sobbing. "She asked me if she could go to the beach and I told her no, she had to come home ... I feel I'm to blame."
The bodies remained in the black Ford hours after the crash while the investigation was ongoing, Gajeski said.
James Reese, 59, of Royal Oak, who was taking the train to an Ann Arbor museum with his wife and grandson and was riding in the second car, said he felt a brief "surge" of the brakes but "no impact and no sound."
"We just knew something bad had happened when the engineer came on the loudspeaker and told us people had been hurt in the accident. Then he told us there were fatalities and we were very sad to hear that," Reese said after the train, which was headed from Detroit to Chicago, returned to the Dearborn station.
No one aboard the train was injured, an Amtrak spokesman said. Passengers were being bused to Ann Arbor to catch a later train to Chicago.
"There is every indication the train crew was doing exactly what it should have been doing and that there was no malfunction of the train," said Marc Magliari, a Chicago-based Amtrak spokesman. "They can't make vehicles, or pedestrians for that matter, heed signals."
"This is tragic for both the family of those who died and the train crew," he said.
Passenger Michael Huckaby of Cedarburg, Wis., said he could hear and feel the railroad car's couplings coming together but didn't hear a whistle.
"He hit the brakes, we hit the car," Huckaby said.
The train — which has a front and rear engine and five passenger cars — stopped near a landfill and a wooded area. The mangled sedan was pushed against the front of the train and investigators covered it with tarp.
About 3 1/2 hours after the crash, the passenger cars and rear engine of Amtrak train 353 pulled away from the front engine and returned to Dearborn. The front engine was to remain at the scene during the investigation.
While the passengers waited to leave, the rear engine was kept running so the air conditioning and bathrooms worked.
"They kept us comfortable, passed out snacks and took our dogs out for potty breaks," said Huckaby, who with his wife had traveled to Detroit with their guide dogs for a convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
Last year, 119 people died nationwide in Amtrak accidents, usually when trains struck vehicles or pedestrians at railroad crossings, according to figures from the Federal Railroad Administration. Eleven people died in train accidents of all types in Michigan in 2008, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
The National Transportation Safety Board hasn't yet decided whether to investigate the crash, spokesman Keith Holloway said.
"Preliminary information indicates that there was no derailment, there were no fatalities on board the Amtrak" train, he said. "We don't always investigate grade-crossing accidents."