Weeks after an Amtrak train split a garbage truck in two at a beleaguered railway crossing, the community is still trying to come to grips with the fatal accident that thrust Crozet into the international spotlight.
The accident occurred at the Lanetown Road crossing right before lunchtime on Jan. 31, when a chartered Amtrak train carrying dozens of Republican lawmakers to a luxury resort in West Virginia struck the garbage truck at 60 miles an hour.
The wreck killed Christopher Foley, 28, of Louisa, who was riding in the truck. Another passenger, Dennis Eddy, and driver, Dana Naylor Jr., were injured and taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center. Six people on the train suffered minor injuries.
Secret Service agents, congressmen, nearby residents, first responders and the media converged on the scene within minutes. Agents with the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board arrived a few hours later and began their investigations.
Conspiracy theories immediately blew up the Internet. The private train had left Washington two hours earlier bound for a GOP strategy retreat at The Greenbrier Resort. There was talk about sabotage and an attempt to undermine President Donald Trump’s political agenda. The NTSB, however, said there were no immediate signs that this was anything but a terrible accident.
According to a preliminary report issued Feb. 21 by the NTSB, witnesses said the Time Disposal “truck entered the crossing after the gates were down.” A forward-facing camera on the train’s lead locomotive showed the gates were down and the garbage truck was on the track when the train hit.
Despite the preliminary report, many questions about the accident remain unanswered. Was the driver trying to beat the train? Did the truck stall on the tracks? Was the crossing equipment working properly? The NTSB said a final report on the crash probably won’t be ready for 12 to 14 months.
Three people who live near the railroad crossing where the crash took place told The Associated Press that the safety arms that come down to warn motorists that a train is approaching appeared to frequently malfunction. The neighbors said they witnessed the arms come down even when no trains were approaching, and sometimes, the arms would stay down for hours at a time.
Jane Rogers, who lives in the Wayland’s Grant neighborhood about two miles from the crash site, crosses the intersection to teach a Jazzercise class at the Crozet Baptist Church. She said that when she arrived at the crossing the day before the crash, the safety arms were down, even though there were no trains approaching. She said after waiting, one car in front of her and two cars behind her turned around. Then, as she started to turn around, the arms went up. One car then crossed the tracks, but Rogers said she waited another 30 seconds and the arms went down again. No trains passed, she said.
“It was a weird up-and-down thing,” she said. “Then the next day, the accident happened at that intersection.”
The truck landed on Benny Layne’s property alongside the tracks. Layne said the crossing arms had been known to fail, sometimes staying down for hours. He said drivers would get out of their vehicles to help guide other motorists around the arms so they could cross the tracks.
“A guy was up here just yesterday or the day before taking a look at them,” Layne said the day of the accident.
Carrie Brown, human resources manager at Buckingham Branch Railroad, which leases the stretch of track and is responsible for maintenance, said she was unaware of any problems with equipment at the crossing. She referred all other questions to the NTSB, which said signal experts will look at the safety of the crossing as part of its investigation.
The crossing was equipped with advance warning signs, pavement markings, crossbuck signs, warning lights, bells and gates.
While the NTSB continues its investigation, Time Disposal owner Boyd McCauley has been left to try to comfort his employees and their families. McCauley said he has been to visit Eddy in the hospital every day. Eddy, who was released from the hospital the weekend of February 24, had been on the job only two weeks.
“Dennis was a brand new guy,” McCauley said in an interview prior to the NTSB report. “That’s why there were three of them on the truck.”
Naylor, the 30-year-old driver, was released from the U.Va. Medical Center a few days after the accident. But he is devastated by the loss of Foley and the trauma of the accident, McCauley said.
“Survivor’s remorse. He just was really close to Chris.”
McCauley started Time Disposal in 1984 with one pickup truck and $10 he borrowed from his grandmother to buy enough gas to go door-to-door and sign up customers. Today, the company has 15 trucks and 17 drivers. Its homespun trash pickup slogan appears prominently on its website: “When in doubt, put it out.”
McCauley, who refers to his employees as “our family,” said Naylor is a longtime driver for Time Disposal and was very familiar with the railroad crossing where the collision took place.
“Dana had been running that same route for seven years. He crossed that track once a week,” McCauley said. “I know he’s not Dana any more right now. I hope he’ll return at some point. I think it’s more of the remorse—that he lived and someone else died.”
The NTSB had not interviewed Naylor before issuing its preliminary report. And Naylor has declined interview requests from the media. When the report came out, McCauley did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The accident affected many others not directly involved in the crash.
“My heart is so heavy,” said Roger Lehr, an 82-year-old retired professor. He recalled seeing the trash truck in his Western Ridge neighborhood only an hour before the fatal accident. He was on his way to the small gym at the neighborhood’s clubhouse.
“They were pulling into the parking lot at the clubhouse to pick up our trash. The big guy was always riding on the back,” he said referring to Foley. “I always called them my crew.”
Other Crozet residents along the ill-fated route also tried to cope with the loss. An idea to tie white ribbons around trash cans quickly spread on social media. When a new Time Disposal crew came to pick up the trash the very next week, they found not only ribbons, but cards, balloons and hand-made signs throughout the neighborhoods of Western Ridge, Foothills Crossing, Westhall, Grayrock and Old Trail.
McCauley summed it up on his company’s Facebook page: “We cannot express how much all the overwhelming support means to us. We feel like our customers and community gave us a big hug when we needed it the most. Again, thank you to all that gave support, donations, and prayers. Rest in Peace, Chris, you are loved and missed by many.”
A new pastor at Tabor Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Liz Hulme Adam, felt the community’s pain and contacted Time Disposal offering to host a candlelight vigil to remember Foley. Tabor wasn’t his church. He didn’t live in Crozet. But Adam said at the vigil that she “heard over and over again people in this town say they are our guys; Chris Foley, a part of our community every week with enthusiasm and joy.”
Dozens attended the event on Feb. 9, most notably about a dozen Time Disposal employees and their families, including owner McCauley, Foley’s fiancé, Adriana Puentes, their 17-month-old son, and Foley’s parents.
“It’s tough for everybody and we’ll all get through this,” his father, Kerry Foley, told the church. “It’s part of life. We never know when the time is for us to end the story of our lives…”
He said he is grateful to those who helped his son in the aftermath of the accident. Despite orders to remain on the train, several doctor congressmen jumped off the train to see what they could do to help the dying and injured on the truck. He mentioned Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio.
“They ignored commands by the security to stay on the train. And so they left and helped as much as possible.” But it was too late for Foley, whose injuries were catastrophic. His memorial service was held at Hill & Wood Funeral Home in Charlottesville on Feb. 10, the day after the candlelight vigil.
“The people in Crozet and others were just amazing,” McCauley said. “Everything they did just brought tears to our eyes and joy to hearts. After the funeral was over, my wife and I talked about it. We set up this small account for his son, Rylan. Chris was a family member.”
Time Disposal also launched a GoFundMe page in the days following the accident to help with Foley’s funeral expenses and to support his family. By the end of February, donations nearly topped $100,000. GoFundMe pages also were set up for Eddy and Naylor.
“We are completely shocked by the whole thing,” said Joann Scott, who is managing the GoFundMe page for her sister, Foley’s fiancé. “It’s incredible. We know Chris was well-liked, but it’s the most amazing thing. Charlottesville has had this bad rap because of the event that happened in August, but the community has really come together to help a family in need—a young single mom right now.”
Scott said the family would like to find those people from the train and surrounding homes who came to the aid of the injured after the accident.
“We’re thankful for the people that were there and were able to help Chris and try to help him survive,” she said. “We saw a nurse on TV—Lynn Olmsted —who tried to administer CPR to Chris and we wanted to do something special for the people who helped him. They are the last people who saw Chris.”
Olmsted, a labor and delivery nurse who works at U.Va., said she was just trying to help a fellow human being who turned out to be her trash collector. She doesn’t expect any special recognition. She heard the train crash when she was picking up her baby from a neighbor’s house in Grayrock. She ran to the scene and was a little apprehensive when she saw a uniformed man who was armed.
“I cautiously approached him because he had a gun and yelled out that I was a nurse. We were working on Chris and kept going until finally someone from the rescue squad said, “We’re done here. There’s nothing else we can do,’” Olmsted said quietly.
“At the end of the day, that’s what we do,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world. We’re all human. We just help each other. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”