Just after midnight on Sept. 29, a 112-car Montana Rail Link train moving at an estimated 42 miles per hour collided with a passenger vehicle. When Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Andrew Novak responded to the scene, he found that the 25-year-old driver of the car had extracted himself from the vehicle and, remarkably, was conscious and standing up.
"He's pretty lucky," Novak says.
The driver, University of Montana student Celestino Sanchez, was driving west on Beckwith Street when he failed to navigate a 90-degree curve and then struck a guardrail near the Erskine fishing access site in Frenchtown, Novak says. After landing on the train tracks, Sanchez opted to continue driving west along the railroad. "While he was doing that," Novak says, "a train came along and hit him."
Law enforcement arrived to find a significantly damaged silver Mazda 6 and the driver comparably unscathed. While shaken, Sanchez appeared to have sustained minimal injuries. He also seemed very intoxicated, says Novak, who declined to release the results of a Breathlyzer test conducted at the scene. Sanchez's decision to continue driving along the railroad tracks would seem to reinforce the allegation that he was intoxicated, Novak says. "Does this all sound like the actions of a sober person?"
MRL spokesperson Lynda Frost says that such unexpected situations pose a challenge for train engineers. "Depending on the speed and the length of the train, sometimes it can take as much as a mile to make the train stop," Frost says. "Visibility is not always quite as clear as one would want."
According to data compiled by the Federal Railroad Safety Administration between January of this year and July, there were 14 total train accidents in Montana, none fatal. One of the accidents was a collision, 10 were derailments and three listed as "other."
On Monday, Sanchez pleaded not guilty in Missoula Justice Court to charges of criminal trespass to property and aggravated driving under the influence.
In 2012, Sanchez was convicted in Missoula Municipal Court of DUI.