HAMPDEN – By the time truck driver Mike Smith heard the clanging of the railroad signal bells, he knew his options were limited.
“I had a choice,” the 37-year-old Thomaston resident said Tuesday night, less than an hour after the back end of the tractor-trailer he was driving was struck by a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train. The collision and subsequent derailment occurred around 7 p.m. where the tracks cross Route 9, also known as Western Avenue.
“My choice at that time was try to speed up and get out of its way or die,” said Smith, who chose the former option and lived to tell about it.
The train tore off the back end of the trailer full of demolition debris Smith was hauling from Warren to the Pine Tree Landfill, spilling trash onto the roadway and into the steep gully that runs along the tracks. The impact pushed the train’s engine and first two cars off the track.
No one was hurt.
The crossing, which has signals but no gate, sits at the bottom of a long, downward stretch of road with a significant bump in its approach. Smith was driving east. The train was traveling north toward Hermon.
The wreckage gouged a deep gash into Western Avenue. Personnel from the Maine Department of Transportation were expected to arrive Tuesday night to check out the damage and see what repairs need to be made.
Damage estimates for the tractor-trailer, train engine and cars and the road were not available at press time.
“This could have been a lot worse,” said Officer Shawn Devine of the Hampden Police Department, who was parked just up the street from the crossing and heard the accident.
“I heard a loud crash, and then I saw the dirt flying,” he said.
Devine said the setting sun appeared to be a factor in the accident, which remains under investigation.
Smith’s account of the accident bore that out.
“It [the sun] was shining right on the red lenses [of the train signal],” he said. “If I hadn’t heard the bells, I wouldn’t have known [the train was coming].
“I did what I did because, at that point, it was too late to avoid a collision,” Smith said. He said he didn’t even have time to see his life flash before his eyes. “I was more concerned about the people on the train.
“Every day from now on out is a gift,” said Smith, who was a municipal police officer for two small midcoast towns before embarking on a trucking career 18 years ago. He now is trucking for White Oak Farms of Warren.
His immediate plans were to “go home and hug my kids” and take today and possibly the rest of the week off.
Smith wasn’t the only lucky one Tuesday. The three railroad employees on the train were, too.
“They got bounced around, but they weren’t seriously injured,” Robert Grindrod, the Hermon-based railway’s president, said at the scene.
The train employees’ names could not immediately be verified Tuesday night.
Hampden police Sgt. Dan Stewart said the section of Western Avenue affected by the crash likely would be closed through Tuesday night and possibly into today.
Another witness, Rick Card II, 13, a pupil at Reeds Brook Middle School, said he was riding his bicycle in the area when he heard the truck’s engine “rev up really fast” and then the loud crash.
Traffic was being rerouted to Mayo, Kennebec, Meadow, Canaan and Patterson roads.
Stewart said the Maine Department of Environmental Protection would be called to the crash site to handle any spills that might need to be cleaned up as the wreckage is cleared off the tracks.
Hampden emergency responders? fear of a propane leak from one of the train cars, however, proved unfounded after they were searched.