NORTH BERWICK, Maine (AP) — A New Hampshire trucker hauling a load of trash was distracted and speeding before his tractor-trailer skidded more than 200 feet into the path of an Amtrak train, causing a fiery collision that killed him and injured several others in July, investigators concluded.
Peter Barnum, 35, of Farmington, N.H., took a five-minute phone call from his employer just before the collision and his truck was traveling 20 mph faster than the posted speed limit, according to a report by the North Berwick Police Department. A motorist following Barnum reported that the truck had been weaving on the road.
Barnum was distracted, possibly by his cellphone, and “didn’t see the crossing until it was too late,” police Chief Stephen Peasley said Monday.
Investigators cannot say with absolute certainty whether Barnum was on the phone at the moment of impact on July 11. A conversation between Barnum and his boss ended at about the same time as the accident, though the boss insisted that the call ended before the collision, Peasley said.
Amtrak’s Downeaster, which operates between Portland and Boston, was traveling at about 70 mph with 112 passengers aboard when it collided with Barnum’s tractor-trailer.
Witnesses said the impact, which separated the burning locomotive from the other cars, sent flames three stories high, followed by a hail of trash scattered from the trailer. Barnum’s body landed 350 feet away in a grassy ditch, according to the report. Four passengers and two Amtrak crew members were injured, none seriously.
Sean Callis, who witnessed the crash, said two tours in Afghanistan in which he experienced improvised explosive devices helped him deal with the aftermath as he tried to help. Brush fires were breaking out when he found Barnum’s body, which the police report said was pinned under a hydraulic tank.
“It was a big explosion. Everything shattered,” he said. Afterward, the truck’s frame and axles were down the track and twisted metal was everywhere, he said Monday.
Investigators examined Barnum’s cellphone records, GPS and other electronic equipment.
The complete report, made available to the public for the first time Monday, indicates his truck had passed inspections and passed through a weigh station in Eliot 17 minutes before the crash. It also said the train operator blew a whistle and that the flashing lights and the gates were operating properly.
Greg Daigneault of North Berwick, a driver who was following the truck, told investigators that Barnum was driving erratically and didn’t slow down when the speed limit dropped.
“It appeared to me that the truck driver was distracted or tired,” Daigneault told police. “He crossed the center line at least twice and steered into the breakdown lane at least twice, also.”
GPS data from the truck indicated that Barnum had been sticking close to the speed limit, but he didn’t slow down when the limit dropped from 55 mph to 40 mph and then 30 mph, Peasley said.
The state police reconstruction report is not complete, but Peasley said state police told him the report will indicate the truck was traveling at about 50 mph, or 20 mph above the limit at the crossing.
The collision happened during Barnum’s second job of the day for Triumvirate Environmental Inc. of Somerville, Mass., according to the report. After reporting to work at 6 a.m., Barnum dropped off a container at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. He then picked up a load of trash in Kittery to take it to the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Biddeford, the report said.
Cellphone records indicate there were more than a dozen incoming and outgoing calls between 7:37 a.m. and the time of the crash. The report indicates the last call came from his employer at 11 a.m. and ended at 11:05 a.m., the same time police received the first 911 calls, the report said.
Stephen Foye of Triumvirate Environmental told police he couldn’t remember what the two discussed in that last call but said it ended before the crash, according to the report.
Officials from Triumvirate Environmental did not immediately return a call seeking comment from The Associated Press.