Accident results in fatality on tracks

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A Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway employee was killed in Socorro on Oct. 17 when a BNSF train traveling southbound at 46 miles per hour collided with a backhoe working on the train tracks.

Susann Mikkelson/El Defensor Chieftain: Left, Ssteps on a BNSF train engine are crunched Oct. 17, after the train hits a backhoe on the tracks while traveling southbound, at a private crossing just south of the Otero Avenue crossing.

The victim, Eloy Vigil, of Las Cruces, was apparently thrown from the backhoe on impact. The accident occurred at around 2:30 p.m. Authorities are still investigating the accident.

Traffic was re-routed that afternoon from Otero Avenue near Chaparral Drive. Otero Avenue at the railroad crossing remained closed until the next morning when the train was moved.

Vigil, 57 years old and a BNSF employee for over 25 years, was operating a backhoe and refurbishing the railroad track when the accident occurred near a private crossing on BNSF property.

“This accident occurred on private BNSF property,” Joe Faust, spokesperson for BNSF Railway Company, said Oct. 17. “Some private crossings require a whistle, but most do not.”

Faust said this is a tragic accident and the company is investigating how it happened.

“Safety is a number one priority for us,” Faust said.

The lead locomotive on the train is equipped with a camera, which should have captured the entire incident. This should help with the investigation, Faust said.

Socorro Police Department Detective Richard Lopez took the accident report. He said SPD, BNSF and the state Department of Transportation continue to investigate.

“The investigation is still open, but it appears to be just a tragic accident,” Lopez said.

Lopez said the train was traveling southbound from Belen to El Paso, Texas, when the accident occurred. A Caterpillar backhoe operated by Vigil was traveling south parallel to the tracks, then turned toward the west to cross over the tracks.

Lopez said the engineer and conductor honked the train’s air horn trying to warn Vigil, and a third BNSF employee on the ground tried to warn Vigil with a hand signal. However, it appears Vigil did not see or hear the train coming.

“I don’t know how he did not hear the air horn,” Lopez said. “But maybe part of it was because the backhoe had an enclosed cab.”

Lopez said the impact with the train shattered the backhoe’s windows and Vigil was ejected from the cab. Vigil landed on the ground, then the backhoe fell on him. He noted the Caterpillar’s seat belt was engaged, so investigators don’t know if he was ejected out of the seat belt.

Lopez said all of the witness’ statements agreed with each other and did not conflict with evidence at the scene.

The police report states witnesses were interviewed separately. Both the engineer and conductor told police the air horn was engaged before the Otero Avenue crossing until the time of impact. The conductor said they saw the Caterpillar traveling along the tracks and were engaging the air horn even after the Otero Avenue crossing in order to try to warn the backhoe operator.

The BNSF employee on the ground saw the backhoe traveling along the tracks and heard the train’s horn honking, according to the police report. He tried to signal Vigil by tapping the top of his hard hat. The employee then saw the locomotive strike the backhoe, saw Vigil ejected from the cab and saw the backhoe flip over.