From the Rocky Mountain News - May 30, 2002

Worker crushed as 'ghost train' rumbles 32 miles to Denver from Castle Rock

By Kevin Vaughan and Brian D. Crecente, News Staff Writers


SEDALIA -- A runaway freight car broke loose from a train in Castle Rock Wednesday morning, hitting and killing a railroad worker as it rumbled 32 miles before grinding to a halt in north Denver.

The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating.

"We don't know at this point how (the car) became detached," said Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for the railroad.

The car, loaded with spikes and metal plates, cut down 36-year-old Thomas T. Durst of Douglas, Wyo., as he worked on the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway tracks south of Sedalia.

A crewman working with Durst jumped out of the way just as the car bore down on them.

More than 30 minutes later, the rusty, open-topped car was still rolling down the track, weaving its way around downtown Denver as police officers frantically raced from one crossing to the next warning motorists.

"It's like a ghost train; it's on its own," said Denver police officer Kevin Smolka, who chased the car on his motorcycle.

The trouble started in Castle Rock around 11:30 a.m. as the car sat on the tracks between Third and Fifth streets.

Kent said the car, called a gondola, was the second of two cars being pulled by an engine and being used by a work crew making repairs along the line.

The car broke loose and began rolling north, along a route that drops nearly 1,000 feet over the 32 miles. Kent said a warning went out over the railroad's radio, but she was unsure whether Durst heard it.

At 11:32 a.m., Douglas County authorities received the first of more than 100 911 calls from people who saw the runaway car.

A few minutes later, the car, its sound masked by traffic from nearby Santa Fe Drive, barely missed a Burlington Northern Santa Fe employee working on the tracks and crushed Durst, said Douglas County sheriff's spokesman Bernard Harris.

The survivor, whose name was not released, called 911 at 11:49 a.m.

A few minutes later in Louviers, Wayde Sandell was loading steel beams into a tractor-trailer rig at Sunward Corp., when he saw the car headed north.

It struck him as odd because that section of track is normally used for southbound trains.

Then he noticed "there's no engine."

"It had to be doing 80 (mph) or better," Sandell said.

At 12:08 p.m., police were told that the car was at Santa Fe Drive and West Evans Avenue, traveling about 40 mph. It passed beneath Interstate 25, ran along the highway until roughly Sixth Avenue, and then followed the tracks north toward the Auraria Higher Education Center.

Police scrambled to crossings along the way as railroad workers threw a switch to divert the car onto a section of track that headed uphill.

At roughly West 13th Avenue and Shoshone Street, Smolka clocked the freight car at 35 mph.

The car passed the Auraria campus and slowed to a stop on an uphill section of track beneath Interstate 25 just south of 38th Avenue.

Had it gone another quarter mile, it would have hit a downhill section of track that might have taken it to Westminster.


Copyright 2002, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.