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Train strikes semi in Perham

A damaged semi trailer is shown after it was hit by a freight train Friday morning in Perham. Photo by John George / Perham Enterprise-Bulletin

A 123-car freight train struck an empty semi trailer that became disconnected from its tractor early Friday in Perham, Police Chief Brian Nelson said.

The accident occurred about 7:18 a.m., within about 20 yards of Perham City Hall. The eastbound train was carrying 17,000 tons of lignite to Superior, Wis.

It's the second train collision in less than a month in Perham.

The truck driver, Arturo Martinez, 47, of Alvarado, Minn., was unhurt in Friday's accident but visibly shaken and said he was experiencing breathing difficulty, according to Perham Police Chief Brian Nelson.

The northbound tractor-trailer was crossing the tracks at Second Street Northeast when the trailer disconnected from the semi, Nelson said.

The trailer was on the tracks with a Burlington Northern freight train approaching and Martinez waved his arms to try to stop the train, he said.

"But, of course, it takes some distance to stop a fully loaded freight," Nelson said.

The train struck the trailer, driving it through the cross arm and signal, Nelson said. The trailer came to rest about 75 feet east of the intersection.

The impact of the collision tore the truck trailer apart, ripping open the metal and steel trailer.

Brent Hills of the BNSF claims office in Fargo said Martinez reportedly placed the trailer in a lot at the Perham industrial park near the tracks. Apparently the trailer was in the wrong spot, so Martinez was asked to reconnect it to the truck and move it, Hills said.

Perham police reports state that the trailer was backed up, where it became disconnected directly over the rails. Martinez said he had forgotten to replace the pin in the trailer.

Train conductor Mark Halvorson, of West Fargo, said he and the engineer saw the trailer about 500 feet from the point of collision.

"I went down to the nose of the engine as a safety measure, to avoid flying debris," said Halvorson, noting that the nose is steel-reinforced. The train engineer immediately called in the emergency, said Halvorson.

Fortunately, the truck trailer was empty, added Halvorson.

"There could have been hazardous materials ... if the trailer had been fully loaded, it could have been a lot more dangerous," said Halvorson.

The truck trailer is likely a total loss. The railroad crossing arm and the electronic control unit mounted by the tracks were destroyed but replaced by Friday afternoon.

"There is extensive damage to the crossing signal and the tracks," said conductor Halvorson.

The train accident divided Perham for about an hour, as the stalled freight train shut down north-south traffic.

On May 29, a BNSF freight collided with a pickup truck, which was crossing the tracks about a mile east of downtown Perham - killing 67-year-old Larry J. Brewer.