St Petersburg Times--North Pinellas

2 injured in rail car collision

A runaway rail car hits a second car holding two men and thousands of bottles of beer, sending them flying. The men are not seriously hurt.

By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
published July 26, 2003



LARGO - The cases of Corona beer bottles stacked around the two workers in the rail car numbered about 3,700. The forklift parked on the ramp leading to the car weighed about 5,000 pounds.

And the train car heading straight for them Friday afternoon weighed about 30 tons.

When that car hit the one holding the workers, the stationary car was hurled down the tracks. The noise shook the building at Great Bay Distributors at Starkey and Ulmerton roads.

Inside the beer car, cases of Corona collapsed onto the workers, partly burying one of them in cardboard, glass and fizz.

The car rolled down the tracks, ripping electrical boxes off the building and bursting a pallet of beer, then striking and twisting a structural beam.

The moving car dragged the forklift off the ramp. It thudded to the ground below. The car rolled about 220 feet before stopping.

Company officials heard the crash and came running.

"You could hear it a mile away," said Craig Rubright, the company's chief financial officer. "There was no question something was wrong."

Rubright got to the loading dock and saw the car had rumbled down the tracks. He hopped down to the ground and peered under the cars, hoping he wouldn't find any of his workers in pieces.

"Where would you look?" he said later.

Employees told him the two workers were in the car. One was uncovering the other from a heap of Corona cases. Pinellas sheriff's officials identified the workers as Richard E. Beineke, 43, of Clearwater, and Kenneth Johnson, 38, of Holiday.

Both were taken to Morton Plant Hospital with minor injuries, said Frank DeFrancesco, District Chief for the Largo Fire Department.

They were expected to be okay. Great Bay officials felt lucky.

"They were just incredibly fortunate. It's pretty scary," Rubright said. "Both are good guys, good workers."

The mishap apparently occurred after a worker at next-door Conrad Yelvington Distributors Inc. loaded too many cars onto the track, said Buzz MacNeil, assistant operators manager at Conrad Yelvington.

MacNeil said train cars loaded with 101 tons of rock come to the distributor from Miami to unload.

After they are emptied, a train moves the 30-ton cars onto a curling stretch of track that runs past Great Bay. A worker on the ground apparently failed to notice that a car was parked at Great Bay, so he allowed the train operator to move too many cars onto that ribbon of track, MacNeil said.

When he moved the last car onto the track, it pushed the line of cars into the beer car.

MacNeil said the train operator could not see the entire line of cars around the bend. It was the responsibility of the worker on the ground, who MacNeil said was a day laborer, to keep track of the cars.

"He's been here four months and he should know better," MacNeil said.

MacNeil said the employee probably would keep working at the business, though "under a lot closer supervision."

"It could have been worse," he added. "I know how bad I felt going over there to see how bad it was."

Pinellas sheriff's officials were investigating the incident, though only to provide information to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. No criminal charges were expected.

"It seems the incident was an accident with no foul play," said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.

Great Bay officials said the beer car was the only train car parked at their facility. Its wheels were properly chocked on the track, but that didn't stop it from plowing forward after it was hit.

Most of Great Bay's product is moved by trucks. Only about 2 percent is moved by train and, coincidentally, Friday was set to be the last day train cars were used for distribution. Rubright said it was the first time in the 25 years he has worked there that a mishap like this has occurred.

Company officials said the accident probably damaged up to 800 cases of beer and caused significant damage to the support beam holding up a portion of the building.

"It ripped it like a pretzel," Rubright said. "But as long as those guys weren't hurt seriously, everything's okay. We can fix the building. We can get more beer."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or tisch@sptimes.com

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or tisch@sptimes.com