A Riverside County man died Monday morning after a freight train smashed into his car, which was stopped on the railroad tracks between the signal crossing arms in Mira Loma.
The northbound 78-car train struck the Honda Accord about 9:30 a.m., crumpling the door and smashing the windows and rear windshield, authorities said. The man's wife, in the passenger seat, suffered minor neck injuries.
Juan Marquez, 64, of Mira Loma was driving east on Jurupa Road at Van Buren Boulevard when the signal arms went down as cars crossed the tracks, said witness Glenda Miller, who was stopped at the crossing. Marquez backed up, hitting one arm, then pulled forward and appeared to freeze on the tracks in panic, according to both Miller and California Highway Patrol officers investigating the crash.
"I still can't figure out what the man was doing," said Miller, 40, a former firefighter, who crawled underneath the train to pry the man out of his car and perform CPR. "Why didn't he run?"
Miller said the train's engineer sounded his horn before the crash. She heard the train's brakes screech as the locomotive slammed into the Honda.
With the crossing signals still clanging behind her, a shaken Miller said Marquez had a faint pulse when she arrived. He soon died despite paramedics' efforts to revive him, Miller and a Riverside County coroner's spokesperson said.
The couple were wearing seat belts, a CHP officer said.
The Union Pacific train was traveling between 30 and 35 mph in a 65-mph zone, a company spokesman said. The train, with a three-man crew, had just unloaded cars in Mira Loma.
Riverside County has 57 street-level or "at-grade" railroad crossings, as opposed to grade-separated crossings where cars drive over or under tracks, said Stephanie Wiggins, rail department manager for the Riverside County Transportation Commission. Converting a crossing to grade-separated can cost more than $20 million.
Crossing signals are triggered by an electric sensor on the track a minimum of 20 seconds before a train passes by, said Steve Kulm, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.
Crossing gates are also designed to break away or bounce back up if a vehicle hits them to allow cars stuck on tracks to pass freely.