Benton, TN Van And Train Crash, Jul 1998


Benton, Tenn. (AP) - Less than a quarter-mile away from their home, a family of five was killed when their van drove into the path of an oncoming freight train at a rural railroad crossing.
The crossing was not equipped with a gate or flashing lights. The train's engineer saw the van on the tracks Monday afternoon and blew the whistle, but it was too late for the train to stop.
Killed were MICHAEL VARNELL, 39; his 32-year-old wife TAMMY; and their children, JESSICA, 8; KRISTIN, 7, and DAVEY, 8.
"I knew it didn't look like they were going to live," said Roy Lowe, who saw the accident scene in Benton Station, 40 miles east of Chattanooga.
The CSX Transportation Inc. train was headed north from Jacksonville, Fla., to Cincinnati. The engineer saw the van approaching and blew the train whistle.
"By the time a train engineer sees a car on a crossing, it's too late," said CSX spokeswoman Jane Covington.
The van was pushed several hundred feet down the tracks before the train stopped. Rescuers had to cut open the van to get to the victims.
"The top of the van was just folded in. They were putting pieces of it in a pickup truck," said Pandora Garrett, who lives nearby.
The two-person train crew was unhurt, Covington said.
"As unfortunate as it is for that family, it's also unfortunate for the train crew," she said. "I'm sure they're experiencing some trauma as well."
The maximum speed limit for the train was 60 mph. There was no indication it was speeding, Covington said.
Authorities have interviewed the crew, and plan to examine a "black box" carried on the train to record its movements, Covington said.
There have not been any accidents at the crossing in recent memory, neighbors and Covington said.

The Courier Waterloo Iowa 1998-07-14