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Woman dies, 10 hurt after train strikes bus in Evans City

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 8:39 a.m.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Investigators secure the area Friday April 26, 2013 at the scene of a bus and train crash near the intersection of Maple Avenue and South Washington Street in Evans City, Butler County.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Evans City Police Chief Joseph McCombs speaks with the media Friday April 26, 2013 at the scene of a bus and train crash near the intersection of Maple Avenue and South Washington Street in Evans City, Butler County.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
An investigator surveys the damage Friday April 26, 2013 at the scene of a bus and train crash near the intersection of Maple Avenue and South Washington Street in Evans City, Butler County.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
A Pennsylvania State Police trooper collects evidence Friday April 26, 2013 at the scene of a bus and train crash near the intersection of Maple Avenue and South Washington Street in Evans City, Butler County.
Bill Vidonic | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Evans City police Chief Joseph McCombs tells reporters the transit bus flew several feet in the air after impact with a freight train Friday, April 26, 2013, at the Maple Avenue crossing.

A bus driver told police that he did not see a freight train before it smashed into the bus at an unguarded, fog-shrouded Evans City rail crossing on Friday, killing one woman and injuring the driver and nine elderly or disabled passengers, police said.

“He said he didn't see anything coming, and then somebody on the bus screamed,” Evans City police Officer Trina Loesch said.

Claudette Miller, 91, of Callery, Butler County, died of head and upper body injuries in Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office ruled her death accidental.

Miller, former postmaster at the Callery post office for decades, had been headed for a day out at Lifesteps, which provides social activities for senior citizens, children and adults.

“As I put her on the bus, I said, ‘Have a good day, Grandma. I'll see you at 3 (p.m.),' ” said Claudia Ripper, 52, of Callery. “We are in total shock.”

The train, owned by the Allegheny Valley Railroad, was hauling asphalt and had been traveling at about 25 mph, said Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington. A crew member blew the horn and tried to stop the train, said Evans City police Chief Joseph McCombs.

The impact lifted the 12-seat bus several feet into the air and spun it, pushing it along some gravel before it came to rest on the side of a small ravine, McCombs said.

“There were some people strapped in their seats,” McCombs said. “Others were lying on the floor or lying on seats. It was pretty chaotic.”

Miller was sitting where the damage was heaviest, her granddaughter said.

No one on the train was injured.

Bus driver Frank Schaffner, 59, was treated and released at Butler Memorial Hospital. He could not be reached for comment.

Police were awaiting results of blood-alcohol tests, which are standard for serious accidents, Evans City police said.

Butler County owns the bus, which is operated by the Alliance for Nonprofit Resources, a support agency for nonprofit groups. Schaffner had driven for nearly 2½ years for the organization, which makes about 300 reduced-fee trips a day, and is a driver for a local ambulance company, said alliance Executive Director Michael Robb.

“He is a good employee,” Robb said. “We haven't had any issues with him.”

The passengers ranged in age from 26 to 91. They suffered broken bones, cuts and bruises, authorities said. They were being transported to Lifesteps; ARC of Butler County, which runs programs for people with developmental disabilities; and the Butler VA Health System.

One man in his 40s was flown to UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland in critical condition, and two other men went by ambulance to Presbyterian.

Three men, two in serious condition, went to Allegheny General Hospital. One person was treated and released at UPMC Passavant in Cranberry. Three people, including Schaffner, were treated and released at Butler Memorial Hospital.

Authorities did not name the injured passengers.

The three-member train crew, who also were not identified, told investigators that the bus, headed east on Maple Avenue toward South Washington Street, was sitting on the railroad crossing just after 8 a.m. Friday, not moving as the train bore down on it, McCombs said. The crossing does not have gates or signal lights.

Robb said investigators told him that Schaffner had stopped at the crossing and proceeded through it, and that fog was a contributing factor for the crash. Robb said he spoke to Schaffner, who was shaken by what happened. Robb declined to provide details of the discussion.

McCombs said police are not prepared to say how much of a role the heavy fog played in the accident. The train was going within the speed limit on that section of track, officials said.

The locomotive traveled nearly 150 yards after impact before it stopped, McCombs said.

The train's owners did not return phone messages.

Three Federal Railroad Administration officials are conducting an investigation, including recovering data from the locomotive's “black box” recorder.

“We can't comment on the cause until the investigation report is complete,” Kulat said.

State police and the Butler County District Attorney's office assisted Evans City police in the investigation, as did agents with the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration.

Kulat said a road's owner usually decides whether a gate or flashing lights is necessary at a rail crossing. McCombs said the crossing had not been the scene of previous accidents with motor vehicles.

Evans City owns the road, but Mayor Dean Zinkhan, who took office in February, could not say why there was no gate or lights.

Miller, who taught Sunday school at Crestview Community Church for 40 years, lived with her granddaughter and went to Lifesteps three days a week, family members said.

“She was a wonderful grandmother,” Ripper said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or Staff writers Tom Fontaine and Rick Wills contributed to this report.

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