U.S. Rep. John Rutherford said he was standing in a chartered train with dozens of fellow GOP lawmakers Wednesday when their trip to a Republican policy retreat was tragically put on hold as their locomotive slammed into a trash truck at a railroad crossing near Crozet, Va.
The impact forced some congressmen to the floor as the trash truck was torn in half, leaving one of its passengers dead and another seriously injured from the wrenching impact, Rutherford said.
Like the police officer he was for four decades, the former Jacksonville sheriff told The Times-Union he went outside to help as he and other congressmen gazed at the garbage strewn around the crash site.
“Some doctors who are also congressmen were already at the scene and working on one of the individuals. One was clearly deceased and the other was very life threatening. The driver — I did not see him — was walking around,” Rutherford said by phone. “It was really a sad scene. I noticed both of the control arms were down, so I can only assume the truck was going or broke down and they came down around them.”
Rutherford wasn’t the only local congressman on the train. Rep. Ted Yoho said he was seated with wife Carolyn when the impact occurred.
“Luckily we were sitting down as I worked on some legislation, then we heard this loud noise and felt a jolt. When the train came to an abrupt stop, I figured we had hit something big,” Yoho told the Times-Union. ” … You always have thoughts and prayers going out to those who suffered and their families. I can walk away from this, but there are those who will be affected by this forever.”
The policy retreat is an annual event scheduled to last three days, featuring speeches from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The train had been en route to the historic Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., for two hours when the crash occurred, according to The Associated Press.
Early Wednesday afternoon, the president said he had spoken to House Speaker Paul Ryan after the crash, saying the lawmakers are “proceeding with their conference” after he was told “it was a pretty rough hit,” according to AP.
A GOP aide said the train seemed partially derailed after hitting the truck.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee was on his way to the restroom when the crash occurred, telling The Tennessean in a phone call from the scene that he was thrown around upon impact and suffered neck, back and foot injuries.
Staff members tweeted that Rep. Jason Lewis of Minnesota was taken to a hospital to be checked for a possible concussion, the AP said. Amtrak said two crew members were taken to a hospital with minor injuries.
“I was standing and with a cup of coffee and I actually crushed the cup when I staggered back a bit,” Rutherford said after the collision. “The train stopped very quickly and we looked out and could see we had hit a garbage truck. … I was able to stay on my feet, but some members actually went down and were treated at a hospital for minor injuries. There is a somber mood over this meeting.”
“We will continue,” Yoho added. “There were some truncation of things Wednesday night, and we will open up with a prayer session.”
Yoho, a veterinarian, said train staff came through the cars asking if anyone there had medical training. He checked out a congressional aide for a possible concussion before that victim was sent to a hospital, he said.
The AP reported that one of those who got off the train to help was Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, who was also at last June’s shooting of Republicans at a baseball practice in nearby Alexandria, Va., and treated some of the victims. Rep. James Comer of Kentucky said Reps. Larry Bucshon of Indiana and Roger Marshall of Kansas also went to the aid of crash victims before emergency personnel — including a transport helicopter — arrived.
“They did a great job,” Yoho said of the congressmen doctors. “They just went to work on what they could. One was dead, another walked away and another was critical and they worked on him.”
The accident happened at an intersection that crosses the tracks at the top of a hill where visibility is limited, according to the AP. Crozet is a small town west of Charlottesville, which is home to the University of Virginia. The railroad crossing is equipped with two advance warning signs, two roadway gate arms, two mast-mounted flashing lights and a bell to warn of an approaching train, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation Inventory Form dated Jan. 3 describing its warning system. According to the inventory form, passenger trains don’t go through very often, an average of less than one per day.
Buses took congressmen, families and aides the rest of the way to the hotel, where Trump is planning to address the Republican lawmakers Thursday at the conference.
Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549