Victor Velasquez Jr. said he felt hopeless as he watched the massive train smash into the car of a woman he just met.
In Wednesday’s fading twilight, the Gilbert teenager couldn’t tell what happened to Janet Orchard because he was on the east side of the Union Pacific train roaring across Guadalupe Road and she was on the west, he said. All he could see was debris and smoke in the air. All he could hear was squealing brakes.
Moments before, her car bumped his. It was a fender-bender that cost the 54-year-old Orlando, Fla., woman her life.
"That’s what’s upsetting about the whole thing," Velasquez, 18, said Thursday. "There was hardly any damage to my car."
Police investigators and Velasquez paint a picture of Orchard as emotionally shaken after the crash, then panicky as the train bore down. She couldn’t find her keys to move the car, then stayed with the vehicle until it was too late.
The train struck the car and spun it, "like a flipper in a pinball machine," police Lt. Joe Ruet said. The vehicle then struck Orchard and sent her flying down the road.
Police said Orchard was in town to visit her mother at a Tempe assisted care center, and the car belongs to a family member with a Payson address.
The railroad crossing at Guadalupe west of Cooper Road isn’t dangerous, according to state records. Since 1973, it has been the scene of just five train and vehicle crashes, and Orchard’s death was the first.
"That’s how tragic the whole thing is," Town Manager George Pettit said.
Such incidents also can be traumatic for the trains’ crew members, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said. While they may be able to see from far away that a vehicle is on the track, physics dictates that trains can’t stop quickly.
"They know they can’t stop in time," Davis said. "It’s just a very horrific feeling."
Counseling was offered to the engineer and conductor aboard the train that struck Orchard’s car, Davis said. Meanwhile, their accounts of the crash will be compared with the train’s event recorder, which acts like an airplane’s "black box."
It was shortly after 6 p.m. when Velasquez was driving home from work, looking forward to dinner with his girlfriend and her father in Scottsdale. As he slowed for traffic backing up because of the red light at Cooper, Orchard’s blue Mercury rear-ended his silver Honda Civic. It wasn’t a hard blow.
The cars pulled over, out of traffic but on the tracks. Velasquez said he didn’t expect to be there for more than a few minutes, so there was no worry about a train.
A shaken Orchard emerged from her car. She was distraught, Velasquez recalled, saying she wasn’t from the area and the car wasn’t hers. He tried soothing Orchard by offering reassurances that he was fine and damage was minimal, joking he was surprised the wheels on his "beater" didn’t fall off. "I even gave her a hug," he said.
Orchard didn’t know what to do, so Velasquez suggested exchanging information then pulling into a parking lot across Cooper so they could give police reports. She agreed, and produced her day planner; he laid it on his car’s trunk and began writing, also dialing 911. She went back to her car to find proof of insurance.
That’s when danger began rumbling down the tracks.
A bicyclist rode up to Velasquez, and let him know a train was coming. Velasquez looked to the southeast and saw the train’s lights, but believed it to be distant enough to be safe. He took Orchard’s day planner and walked back to her car.
When he handed back the day planner, she said she couldn’t find her keys. The train was coming closer. Velasquez rushed back to his car and moved it forward a few feet, off the tracks.
Witnesses said Orchard got out of her car with enough time to escape. But for unknown reasons, she hesitated, stopped, went back.
"Apparently, she was moving around the car quite a bit," Ruet said.
After Velasquez heard the crash, he said, he bolted out of his car, so badly wanting to see if Orchard was safe he briefly considered jumping on the train so he could get across the tracks faster.
Through the gaps between the cars, he could see the battered Mercury. The train slowed.
"I thought, ‘When is this thing going to stop?’ " Velasquez said. "It slid for a good while."
The train didn’t stop until it had traveled almost a quarter-mile past the crash. When it finally came to a halt, Velasquez stepped between two cars and looked for Orchard.
He found her, took her wrist and searched for a pulse. Nothing. He tried again, hoping his adrenaline kept him from feeling her heartbeat. Nothing. He checked again, on her throat. Nothing.
By now, people were emerging from their cars and nearby town homes. A woman rushed up, said she was a nurse, asked if he had tried CPR. Then came two police officers.
It was too late. Orchard died that evening at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn hospital.
"I feel horrible that it was about something so stupid," Velasquez said.