By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
An inspector for the Arizona Corporation Commission, Bernal wasn't strictly responsible for the public's safety at Arizona's railroad crossings. His job was to check on the condition of the 3,200 miles of train track that crisscross the state. But the cockeyed crossing on the Southern Pacific Railroad main line at Pinal County's Ethington Road looked unsafe enough to Bernal to inspire him to action, even though it wasn't his job.
"This railroad crossing sure has a bad road alignment and also a steep dip between north rail and the Maricopa Road," the onetime Southern Pacific employee began his first handwritten memo. "I will work on this."
Several weeks later, Bernal wrote his supervisor of returning to the crossing with engineers from Pinal County and Southern Pacific: "We will get the road realigned in right angle to the railroad. The approaches to the crossing will be level. I will keep you posted as soon as recommendations are final."
But two years passed before representatives of Southern Pacific and federal, state and county governments again met at the Ethington Road crossing. A state report indicates all present agreed with Bernal's assessment that the crossing needed fixing.
More years slipped by, however, and about all that was realized at Ethington Road were Bernal's worst fears. In 1983 a Casa Grande couple was killed by a Southern Pacific train at the crossing. A few years after that, a woman nearly lost her life there.
By Labor Day, 1988, the rural crossing looked much the same as it had when Bernal wrote his urgent memos more than 13 years earlier. On that sunny, hot September 5 morning, there were no automatic gate arms at Ethington Road, no flashing lights to warn drivers of an approaching locomotive, not even a stop sign.
A yellow railroad-crossing sign and a pair of ancient crossbuck markers were all that alerted drivers to potential danger.
Late that morning, 39-year-old Casa Grande native John Vargo, his 13-year-old daughter Candice, and family friend Ronnie Felix hopped into Vargo's Chevrolet pickup to go dove hunting. The trio drove out the Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway for a few miles until they reached Ethington Road. Eyewitnesses saw the pickup turn left onto the unpaved road and continue at about 25 mph toward the train tracks.
In those days, the tracks bisected Ethington Road at an acute angle, and southbound drivers had to look back over their left shoulders to see oncoming trains. The untrimmed, late-summer foliage made trains even more difficult to notice.
By some accounts, Southern Pacific freight train 7833 never blew its whistle or rang its bells while approaching the crossing, as prescribed by Arizona law and railroad policy.
By all accounts, the driver of the pickup truck didn't slow down or stop at the crossing.
The force of the crash hurled all three passengers from the crushed pickup. Father and daughter John and Candice Vargo died instantly. Ronnie Felix, a 20-year-old baseball pitcher from nearby Central Arizona College, died a few hours later.
The day after the triple fatality, Southern Pacific ordered automatic gate arms and flashing lights for the Ethington Road crossing. Within three weeks, Southern Pacific and Pinal County crews started their long-planned, on-site work.
The crews realigned Ethington so it crossed the tracks at a much-safer right angle; then they installed the gate arms and flashing lights.
No one has been killed or injured at the crossing since.
Trouble is, the project recommended by Ray Bernal back in 1975 could--and should--have been finished far before the Vargos and Ronnie Felix were killed. But the Egyptians may have had an easier time finishing the Great Pyramid than Southern Pacific and Pinal County had with the relatively simple crossing job at Ethington Road.
@body:Shortly after the fatal crash, the Vargo and Felix families hired a pair of Phoenix lawyers to represent them. In August 1989, attorneys Brek Nitsche and Ian Neale alleged in a lawsuit on behalf of the families that Southern Pacific Railroad and Pinal County were responsible for the three deaths.
The civil case is edging its way through the Pinal County Superior Court system. Millions of dollars may be at stake; the finger-pointing is fierce. No one involved accepts any blame for the Ethington Road tragedies.
But public records analyzed by New Times reveal a textbook example of bureaucratic foot-dragging, corporate intransigence and bad luck.
It took five violent and unnecessary deaths--the three in 1988 and two others in 1983--for the railroad and the government to complete a project that the state's Ray Bernal had recommended in 1975.
Southern Pacific and Pinal County have expended more effort trying to absolve themselves of liability than they did to make one of Arizona's 2,000 train crossings safer for passersby. Southern Pacific's philosophy in the Vargo-Felix case has been, yes, our train hit them at our crossing, but it wasn't our fault--and we're not paying.
The railroad's stance in the case is predictable. It wouldn't be fiscally prudent for railroads to admit any wrongdoing in the deaths of hundreds each year at crossings.