ROSEDALE, Md. (AP) — A dump truck driver who caused a 15-car derailment and chemical explosion was on the phone and distracted when he failed to yield at a private railroad crossing, according to a final report issued by a federal investigative board Wednesday. But the board also criticized federal regulators for allowing the driver to continue operating after his company received multiple citations for negligence.
The National Transportation Safety Board released the findings of its investigation into the May 28, 2013, train derailment that caused the explosion, damaged buildings as far as a mile away, and seriously injured John Alban Jr., the dump truck driver who ran a stop sign.
NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said Alban had answered a call on his cellphone using a hands-free device 18 seconds before colliding with a CSX Transportation Co. train carrying various chemicals and just one second before the train sounded it first warning horn. Alban told investigators that he didn't hear the horn.
"In this case the driver missed auditory cues because he was distracted," Hart said at a news conference.
Hart also said the crossing was in disrepair: Overgrown vegetation impaired visibility, and the corroded, upside-down stop sign prompted motorists to stop eight times out of 67 during a three-day period.
Alban "relied on auditory cues because visual information was unavailable due to the curvature of the road and the vegetation. The visual cues were unavailable because neither CSX nor the private land owner nor the state of Maryland accepted responsibility for clearing the vegetation and posting signage," Hart said.
The NTSB determined that the primary cause of the collision was Alban's negligence. But Hart said Alban never should have been on the road in the first place.
Alban owns Alban Waste LLC, near the Rosedale crossing where the crash occurred. He was hospitalized for days after the crash, which caused $625,000 worth of damage to the train and tracks and an untold amount of destruction to nearby businesses and homes.
Before the crash, Alban and his business had an above-average number of violations resulting in some of the company's trucks being ordered off the road. At the time of the incident, Alban had been issued violations for speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, failing to carry a registration card and using a hand-held cellphone.
Still, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration allowed Alban Waste to continue operating — a move Hart said was indicative of "inadequate federal oversight."
According to the NTSB report, Alban Waste failed a safety audit Nov. 21, 2011, for neglecting to implement a random drug and alcohol testing program or keep files on its drivers' qualifications. The report also says the company was taken out of service for compliance failures in February 2012, but its carrier operating authority was restored one month later.
"Despite a pattern of serious safety deficiencies, the carrier was allowed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to operate," Hart said. "We know stronger oversight for new entrants is needed."
A representative for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration did not immediately return a call for comment.
As part of its report, the NTSB recommended that FMCSA require compliance reviews for all new motor carriers that fail their safety audits. The board also called on all 50 states to work toward banning the use of portable electronic devices for drivers operating commercial vehicles.
Alban could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A woman who answered the phone at a number listed for Alban hung up.