POMPANO BEACH, Fla. -- The driver who was struck and killed by an Amtrak train Wednesday had time to make it off the tracks, witnesses said.
After the crossing arms descended, Neuza Harris, 56, started to reverse. But before she could bust through the barrier to safety, traffic ahead of her cleared, so she shifted into drive and tried moving forward.
That indecision may have killed her, because by then it was too late. Her car was dragged down the tracks and exploded into flames. Such fatal confusion is not uncommon among drivers caught at crossings.
Drivers often die because they don't act fast enough, said Bonnie Arnold, spokeswoman for the South Florida Regional Transit Authority. Arnold reads accident reports for every incident that happens on the South Florida Railroad Corridor, the rails used by Amtrak and Tri-Rail.
If a driver dies, it's either because they were stuck — either in a broken-down vehicle or boxed in by cars on either side of them — or they froze in panic, she said. Both reasons are pretty common.
Harris' Nissan Murano was hit and dragged down the tracks by an Amtrak Silver Meteor train carrying 75 passengers on its way from New York to Miami. Harris had been stopped at the crossing on West Sample Road, in Pompano Beach, about 5:30 p.m.
The car exploded and was on fire by the time some nearby drivers got out of their vehicles and ran to help, witnesses said. No one else was in the car, and no one outside of the car was hurt.
Vonetta Bain, of Pompano Beach, watched Harris struggle on the tracks and saw the crash.
Bain said she and other motorists were shouting: "Jump out of the car, oh my God, jump out of the car."
"I don't know why they didn't get out," Bain said. "I guess they froze and they couldn't move."
There are no stats on train-track panic, though, because you can never really be sure what happened in the final moments of a person's life as they watched the train bearing down on them.
"I can personally understand freezing," Arnold said. "If those bells start going off and the lights start blinking as I approach a railroad crossing, even though I'm not on the track, all that light and noise makes me panic a little. I can feel my adrenaline going."
In the past 10 years, 75 people have died on train tracks in Broward County alone, according to Federal Railroad Administration Data. Of those, 39 were pedestrians and 36 were in their cars.
On the South Florida Railroad Corridor, where Amtrak and Tri-Rail trains go a maximum speed of 79 mph through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, 47 people have died in the past five years. Of those, 36 were pedestrians and 11 were in their cars.
Harris' son Esdras Nazareth, 30, who lives in San Diego, said the Broward Sheriff's Office called him after the accident on Wednesday. They wanted to know whether his mother may have been suicidal.
"I can tell you it was absolutely not the case," he said. "Mother was extremely happy with her life. I talked to her on Monday, and she was the happiest I've heard her since my stepdad died."
Harris moved to Coconut Creek from Connecticut after her husband, Norman Harris, died in 2010. She wanted a "fresh start" away from the house where he died, Nazareth said.
She had friends in Florida and worked in home care as a state certified nursing assistant. She was planning to join her daughter and two sons for a family reunion at Christmas.
Nazareth said he was stumped about why his mother didn't get off the tracks. She was just heading home from a patient's house, Nazareth said he was told by friends of hers who live in South Florida. She wasn't in a hurry and she wasn't having a bad day.
"She's lived there two and a half years, and it was a simple drive on roads she was familiar with," he said. "And when those gates come down, I have heard sometimes you have 60 seconds before the train comes by. I heard she moved back a little bit, and then she tried to move forward. She just wasn't able to get off fast enough, I guess."
Once you're on the train tracks and those crossing arms come down, you very well may freeze up and get hit even with a little time to get out of the way, Arnold said.
But there's a very simple solution.
"Never, ever enter a train crossing when a train is coming, even if you think you can make it," Arnold said. "Just, please, don't."
Staff writers Wayne Roustan and Linda Trischitta contributed to this report.
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