Dustin Rhodes, 20, of Ramona, narrowly escaped the destructive force of an oncoming freight train Thursday after surviving a car wreck moments before the train “ripped the car in half.”
At approximately 8:37 p.m., Rhodes was westbound in the 1800 block of 360th Rd. attempting to return his sister’s 1996 Oldsmobile Cutlass “so she could go to work” when he lost control on an icy curve that veers north just south of Ramona and intersects with an elevated railroad crossing the lights of which were flashing red.
“The arms were coming down,” Rhodes said. “I tried to stop but I kept sliding.”
Sheriff’s sergeant Mike Ottensmeier said the road was “completely snow packed and ice covered.”
“He was going way too fast,” Ottensmeier said. “He slid about 112 feet before he got to the crossing.”
The Cutlass skimmed across the south set of tracks left of center, and stopped abruptly when it struck a crossing guard pole. The car became high-centered halfway on the northern tracks as the eastbound train bore down.
In the train, engineers Andrew Madeje, Brian Mascareno, and Daniel Towne all saw the car on the tracks, Ottensmeier said. One began blowing the horn repeatedly.
“They knew they couldn’t stop,” Ottensmeier said.
The engineer driving was in training, he said. Ottensmeier said it was that engineer’s first run without any help from other engineers.
“He told me, ‘I saw the whites of the kid’s eyes and I saw him run but I wasn’t sure if he got off the tracks,’” Ottensmeier said.
Rhodes said he got out of the Cutlass right after he hit the pole.
“I wasn’t going to sit there and wait for the outcome,” Rhodes said.
He fled a short distance along the raised track bed before leaping out of the train’s deadly path.
“I jumped off and landed on a rock pile,” Rhodes said. “I hurt my leg a little bit but its fine now.”
He said he didn’t actually see the train hit the Cutlass because he was trying to catch his balance as he slid down the rock pile, but he heard the violent collision and the train screech to an emergency stop.
“It was really scary,” Rhodes said. “The train hit the car right as I got off the rock pile. There was nothing left.”
His initial state of shock transitioned to relief that it hadn’t been his sister, Amanda Rhodes, and his niece in the car.
“I was glad it was me and not her,” Rhodes said. “She would not have been able to get my niece out quick enough.”
Ottensmeier said he did not know the train’s speed. However, he said trains probably run about 45 mph in that area.
“It took the trunk out and basically ripped the car in half,” Ottensmeier said. “It could have easily been a fatality.”
In car vs. train accidents, he said trains “win” more than 80 percent of the time.
Rhodes said his sister told him she did not care about her demolished car but he felt responsible for replacing it.
“It will be fairly easy to replace,” Rhodes said. “I already had a car. I just need $70 to get it fixed and then she can have it.”
Rhodes was charged with driving faster than conditions allowed, no registration, and no insurance.