«The shocked engineer looked right through us»

Alvar, who was riding in the first car during the Kulna train accident yesterday, described the events as follows: “Imagine that you’re on a train and it suddenly veers off and plows into a field. Window frames fell off, the doors became deformed and let in earth from the truck, and everyone was screaming in panic.”

The passenger train that was on its way from Riisipere to Tallinn and the truck collided at the Kulna railway crossing at 8.30 a.m. The roughly 30-ton truck carrying a load of earth derailed two of the train’s leading cars. The train, weighing at over 130 tons, pulled the truck along with it.

The pair plowed the earth for some 20 meters before coming to a stop. The deformed cab of the truck was twisted to one side and wedged between the train, its trailer, and a railway post.

Nine people were hurt in the accident – the truck driver, engineer, conductor, and six passengers – and were taken to the hospital. The 49-year-old truck driver and the 50-year-old engineer sustained the most serious injuries. The latter could go home after a brief stay at the hospital.

Alvar was sitting right in the middle of it all in the back left corner of the first car. In front of him was a row of seats. He was holding the seats tight during the crash in fear the train would tip over.

“I never saw the truck coming. There was no great blow – everything just started shaking violently at one point,” he described. “While such episodes tend to seem longer than they are, I believe it took five or six seconds for the train to come to a stop after the collision,” he continued.

While the train was slowing down, things in the cars that had not been fastened continued moving. Including passengers. “Some seats face each other and have a table in between. People who were occupying those seats had no support and fell to the floor. Some hit their heads on the table. People who were standing in the isle fell down,” the passenger said.

Loose items were scattered. “My phone passed three rows of seats and ended up hitting someone’s milk carton, so it is full of milk now,” Alvar said.

We thought the driver was dead

As the initial shock passed, passengers started asking whether anyone had been seriously hurt. Luckily, the situation was not very serious. Those who had fallen were helped up again. Alvar said that one woman probably broke her arm as she told it was painful and asked him not to touch it when he was helping her up.

Next, the passengers tried to reach the engineer, fearing the worst. “We looked in the cabin; the driver was alive but was looking right through us as he was clearly in shock,” Alvar described. The conductor was also hurt more than the others as they had hit their head after falling. “They took some time to recover and then started checking on everyone else,” Alvar recalled.

There was a burning smell in the train, and because the doors were closed, the passengers considered breaking a window and climbing out. The idea was soon discarded as the passengers decided to remain in the heated train until help arrived.

No one rushed to the truck driver as the first car’s window offered a view of the deformed truck. No one saw the driver, but the sight spoke for itself. “We did not see anyone moving in there. We thought no one could possible emerge alive from there,” Alvar said.

Rescue workers arrived at the scene in less than ten minutes and first approached the truck. To the amazement of the people on the train, they could talk to the driver in Russian. “He was told not to smoke in there. He had lit up a cigarette amid the fumes. It was quite peculiar,” Alvar said.

The rescuers then set about administering first aid and cutting the driver out of the deformed cab. Three quarters of an hour into the accident, everyone was asked to get off the train and write down their names after which an Elron bus took them to Keila and wherever they needed to go from there.

The cause of the accident is not clear, while the fact the truck driver had been drinking probably had something to do with it. The latter was evident at the crash site: there was a bottle of Balta Vodka lying in front of the totaled truck and a Russki Standart label was visible behind the broken windshield.

“How many people have to die and be injured before people will understand that alcohol and driving don’t go together,” said the Norther Prefecture’s Chief of Operations Urmet Tambre. “Let us not spoil the anniversary of the republic with our foolishness. If you must drive, stay sober.”

Weather conditions were good at the time of the accident. The sun had come up 45 minutes earlier, and even if it was shining, it would have been behind the driver. The driver had to have a good view of the tracks and the train from his window. There were no skid marks on the road before the crossing. The seven-year-old truck had a valid inspection.

A good overview of the accident’s details will probably be provided by the train’s log files and cameras. The latter are located at both ends of the train as well as in every car.

Cleanup to take time

Employees of Estonian Railways with several decades of experience said that only nine injured persons mean this was a very fortunate accident. Everything could have ended much more tragically had the truck hit the side of the train – where the passengers are sitting.

Such an accident happened in Raasiku, Harju county in 2014. A truck plowed into the side of a train, killing the driver and one of the passengers on board the train. Back then, 12 people were injured. It took more than a year and a half to repair damage to the train.

The fact the Kulna collision happened at the front of the train could have saved the truck driver’s life as the nose of the train pushed the truck’s cabin forward and away from the train.

The speed of the truck at the time of the collision remains unknown. Estonian Railways safety inspector Ivan Kappanen said that the investigation will determine the speed of the train that was supposed to stop at Kulna just 150 meters from the crash site. He believes it could have been around 60-70 kilometers per hour. “These are fast trains, and they are still doing good speed before stops,” he said.

Kappanen could not say how long it would take to deal with the consequences of the accident. He recalled the Raasiku crash from 2014 which was a much simpler mess to clean up. “Getting the train back on the tracks could take up to 24 hours, while traffic will be reopened some six to eight hours after that,” Kappanen said.

Traffic remained closed on the railway and road sections throughout yesterday, and the truck hadn’t been moved by the time the paper went to print.

Press representative of Elron Mariis Adamberg said it is too early to assess the damages of the accident, but that it would probably take months to repair the train.

Adamberg said that people should not fear disruptions to the schedule. “No trips will be cancelled due to repairs or maintenance. We can combine trains to resolve the situation. This means it might not be possible for everyone to be seated right away during rush hour,” Adamberg said.

The truck is insured by ERGO Insurance that asks everyone who was injured to turn directly to the firm for compensation. Head of loss adjustment at ERGO Caterina Lepvalts said the company will compensate people for treatment and missed pay.

Proceedings have been launched in connection with the accident by the Police and Border Guard Board, the Technical Regulatory Authority, and the Safety Investigation Bureau.