Worker on fatal SunRail crash: It was just a matter of time

By Jeff Allen, Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, December 01, 2017, 5:51 PM EST

There are lingering safety concerns after a semi driver was killed when his rig offloading fencing materials at a loading dock was hit by a SunRail train going 60 mph Thursday.

The crash happened just before noon on Plumosa Avenue, near Ronald Reagan Boulevard, in Seminole County. The semi was on the tracks, offload fencing materials to ACF Environmental in Altamonte Springs, when it was struck by a northbound SunRail train with 38 people aboard.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers say video taken from the SunRail train shows the driver of the tractor-trailer, Stephen Chambers of Hazlehurst, Georgia, trying to get the truck off the tracks as the train approached.

Chambers, 40, was killed. No SunRail passengers were hurt.

Florida Department of Transportation officials met with the business near the train tracks earlier this year and warned it that truck drivers were putting themselves in danger. In order to unload their trailers, drivers must back into a loading dock, which puts the truck in the path of a train.

But it wasn’t the first time there was an issue with trucks unloading at the business.

Workers in the area say trucks regularly have near-misses with trains.

Witnesses to the crash say the area is unsafe for truckers. Workers say trucks offloading to businesses in the area have no choice but to back up onto the train tracks while pulling into a loading dock.

“That happens every day... They (trucks) have to go across the track and back in, and it was just a matter of time before it happened," Hector Herrera said. "We’ve all talked about it.”

State transportation officials say railroad gates were damaged when trucks were too close to the tracks while trains were passing.

“Gates were broken there, and train crews had observed trucks close,” FDOT spokesman Steve Olson said.

FDOT met with ACF and other businesses in the area in July to warn them about the potential danger.

“The railroad tracks are more active than they have been in past years with SunRail, and you can’t just have vehicles lingering on railroad tracks,” Olson said.

An aerial map shows ACF’s current loading dock is the only space around the business that trucks have space to offload.

"ACF is shocked and saddened by the tragic accident involving the truck making a delivery to the facility at 500 Plumosa Avenue in Altamonte Springs yesterday," the company said in a statement. "Our condolences and prayers go out to the driver’s family. At this time, we are gathering facts in order to assess this accident. We will issue further statements at the appropriate time."

Video captured by the SunRail train hasn’t been released, but troopers say that it shows Chambers trying to get the truck off the tracks before the SunRail train hit it.

FDOT said the train, which tried to stop, would have been going about 60 mph between the Altamonte Springs and Longwood SunRail stations, and Chambers would have had about 30 seconds' warning that the train was coming.

Transportation officials say they will push for safety improvements in the area.

“We’ll work with local law enforcement, maybe there’s something with code (enforcement), but bear in mind, these are local roads, so we’ll have to work with the local authorities on something like this. But it’s something we’ll pursue,” Olson said.

Crews continue to work to get the train signals up and fully functioning again at the crash site. Until they do, they’re forcing all trains through here to come to a stop before they can proceed down the tracks.

"Atlantic Coast Carriers would like to express our deepest sympathy for the loss of a beloved friend and employee," the company said in a released statement. "Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends. He was a great son, father, husband and person. He will be greatly missed by all of us here."

A closer look at this year's SunRail incidents (click on icons for details)