Train Hits Cedar Rapids Police Car During Chase Down Tracks

By Jeff Raasch, Reporter

A squad car is shown after being hit by a train during a Cedar Rapids chase early Wednesday morning, March 16, 2011. (Jeff Raasch, The Gazette)

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By Richard Pratt

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - No one was hurt when a train slammed into a Cedar Rapids police car that had been chasing a vehicle early Wednesday morning.

The movie-like sequence ended when the coal-loaded train slammed into the squad car and dragged it about 100 yards before coming to a stop near the intersection of Otis Road and Cole Street SE.

Police said the male suspect got away, and remained on the loose Wednesday.

Sgt. Cristy Hamblin said officers originally stopped the white sport-utility vehicle around 3 a.m. near the intersection of Bever Avenue and 19th Street SE. They recognized the male driver, because he had been arrested a couple weeks ago for driving with a suspended license, she said.

The man handed over his registration, but when he couldn’t produce his license, he sped off, police said. Hamblin said the driver hit speeds between 50 and 70 mph and headed south to the Sac and Fox Trail.

The driver took a sharp left, and first drove parallel along the railroad tracks, but then went up onto the tracks with his vehicle, police said.

Hamblin said the officer driving the trailing squad car started down along the tracks from the Fir Avenue SE crossing, but was unaware he was actually driving between two sets of tracks. A sergeant called off the chase and advised the officer not to get stuck, but not before the tracks merged.

In the process of turning around, the squad car got stuck on the tracks, police said.

“They got out of the car and were surveying it when they noticed the train was coming,” said Hamblin, who added that the two officers then got a safe distance away.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said police dispatch notified railroad dispatchers at 3:07 a.m. that two vehicles were on the tracks. Seconds later, the eastbound locomotive pulling 136 railcars hit the squad car, he said.

The impact destroyed the rear of the squad car, shattered the back window and flattened tires. New police squad cars cost approximately $47,000, but the one that was destroyed Wednesday was near the end of its lifecycle and was scheduled for replacement in the 2012 fiscal year, Hamblin said.

Davis was unsure how fast the train was traveling, but said the maximum speed in that area is 70 mph. At 60 mph, it would take at least a 1 1/2 miles for the train to stop, he said.

“We immediately contacted the crew, but it was too late for them to stop,” Davis said.

About a quarter-mile down the tracks, the SUV also got stuck. The driver ran off into the darkness. Another train coming in the opposite direction was able to stop before it hit the SUV.

Police said another squad car en route to the chase sustained minor damage when it hit a curb and went into the front yard of a residence near the intersection of Memorial Drive and Seely Avenue SE. The officer was not hurt.

The SUV was impounded by police. Police have identified the driver, but have not released his name or description.

“It’s just a matter of time before he turns himself in, or we catch him,” Hamblin said. “We found some interesting items in his vehicle that we’d like to discuss with him.”

Hamblin declined to elaborate about what was inside the SUV.

Rail traffic was halted for more than five hours, as authorities cleaned up the mess. Nineteen trains were delayed, Davis said.

A review of police scanner traffic indicated that the chase stopped around 3:02 a.m., about five minutes before the train hit the squad car. Hamblin said a police dispatcher dialed a local number and did not immediately reach railroad dispatchers.

Hamblin said a review of the chase has been initiated, which is standard procedure.

“That’s one of the things we’ll be looking at as well, is why there was a delay,” Hamblin said.

Guidelines are in place on when to initiate or stop a chase that many variables, including the location, time of day and weather conditions, but there are no specific rules about railroad tracks, Hamblin said.

According to the Cedar Rapids police manual, there are several reasons a pursuit will be terminated, including: “The offense is a traffic infraction, misdemeanor or other non-violent felony and the violator is known.”

Hamblin said the policies in place are guidelines and not “not black-and-white.”

“We’re going to have Monday morning quarterbacks,” Hamblin said. “We expect those, and we appreciate them, as well. Every chase we have, whether a foot chase or a car chase, we scrutinize and we analyze it.

“We’re our own Monday morning quarterbacks, and we’re probably harder on us than the public would ever be.”

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