By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The three people killed at the Ethington Road crossing in September 1988 certainly knew nothing of the unending machinations between the governments and the railroad.
"They were just going to have fun with each other," says Ginger Vargo White, a grade-school teacher whose husband and youngest daughter died in the crash. (She has since married a fellow schoolteacher.) "None of us knew that the railroad and the government do things like they did."
@body:John Vargo led a simple life with Ginger and their three teenage daughters. The Coca-Cola truck driver was a devoted family man who typically spent his free time outside--barbecuing, hunting and fishing with his kids and family friends.
Candice Vargo doted on her father and vice versa. The 13-year-old loved little-girl things, but she also adored the outdoors. She was thrilled when her dad invited her to go dove hunting on Labor Day with close family friend Ronnie Felix.
The Vargos and the Felixes had been friends for years. Ron Felix Sr. and John Vargo had met at a Bashas' supermarket in Casa Grande that Felix managed and the pair had hit it off. Each had three children--Vargo's were a few years younger than Felix's--and the two families often did something together on Sundays.
Ron Felix Sr. says John Vargo served "as a second father to my kids. He was the father who liked to hunt and fish, unlike me."
A daylong dove-hunting trip on Labor Day seemed a great way to end the summer for Vargo, his youngest daughter, Candice, and Ronnie Felix. Felix had enrolled for his sophomore year of college at Central Arizona College, a two-year school known for its excellent baseball program.
Felix earned numerous honors while pitching at Casa Grande High School, and in 1987 he won a scholarship to Scottsdale Community College. Ronnie had a prototypical body for a pitcher--lanky and wiry--and he patterned himself after the New York Mets' Dwight Gooden.
Like millions of other youngsters, Ronnie Felix dreamed of playing big-league ball. But like Gooden, Ronnie found himself with an injured right arm after throwing too many pitches.
But his dad says Ronnie's arm strength had improved enough over the summer of 1988 that the coach at Central Arizona College had offered a scholarship. Ronnie decided to transfer, his father says, so he could be closer to his friends and family. The fall semester was around the corner when John Vargo asked Ronnie if he wanted to join him and Candice on the dove-hunting excursion.
Early the next morning, according to depositions, Vargo mowed his lawn and fiddled with his pickup before he and Candice loaded up the truck. No one has testified they saw Vargo drink any liquor that morning, despite a blood-alcohol level of .055 taken after his death.
That reading was well under the .10 limit at which Arizona law assumes a driver is under the influence. But there was enough liquor in John Vargo's blood to make his alleged negligence behind the wheel a valid question for the jury to consider at trial.
Ronnie Felix came by around 10:30 a.m. and the trio headed out to the Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway in Vargo's Chevy pickup. It only took them a few minutes to reach Ethington Road.
Epifanio Rodriguez and David Valdez were driving home in the opposite direction after cleaning spinach in Eloy that morning when they saw the pickup turn left onto Ethington. The angled crossing was only a few seconds ahead.
"I told David that the train was gonna hit the pickup," Rodriguez told a Southern Pacific investigator through a translator a few days after the accident. "It [the pickup truck] didn't seem like it stopped. When the train hit the truck, I saw it well."
The Vargos and Ronnie Felix probably never knew what hit them.
"I don't think he saw the train coming," David Valdez told investigators also through a translator, "because there was a hill, kind of high, that obstructs between the track and the train."
It was the same obstruction that the ACC's Ray Bernal had warned about in his 1975 memos.
Rodriguez claimed in a separate interview that he had heard the train's whistle, but only after it had struck John Vargo's pickup. Valdez added he had never heard the train blow its whistle or ring its bells at the accident site. Southern Pacific engineer Joseph Donnegan and conductor John McConnell have said under oath that Donnegan started to blow the whistle one-quarter of a mile before the Ethington Road crossing, as is required under Arizona law.
"Everything just kind of slowed down," Donnegan said of the accident. "I can remember standing up and blowing the whistle with both hands."
Whether he blew it or not may not have mattered to the trio, anyway. The windows of Vargo's pickup were up and his air-conditioner likely was going full blast. The three probably were chatting when the train rammed into the driver's side of the pickup. Farmworkers Valdez and Rodriguez immediately stopped their car and hopped between the stopped freight cars to try to help. The dead bodies of an older man and a young girl were on the desert floor next to the demolished pickup. Several feet away from the bodies, a young man was barely alive.