By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The pair rendered what aid they could to Ronnie Felix until the authorities arrived within a few minutes. A helicopter took Felix to Phoenix for emergency treatment at Maricopa Medical Center, where he soon died.
Back at Ethington Road, sheriff's investigators tried to sort out what had happened. Farmworker David Valdez wandered around the gory scene in a daze. He picked up Candice Vargo's little handbag and the shoes that had been torn off her feet in the crash.
Valdez held on to the items for a few minutes. Then he handed them to a cop and went home.
Southern Pacific claims it was coincidence, but it ordered the automatic gate arms and flashing lights for Ethington Road the day after the triple fatality. Construction at the site started within three weeks.
@body:The Vargo-Felix trial is scheduled to begin this September in the courtroom of Judge Robert R. Bean in Florence.
Actually there may be two trials. If a jury decides that Southern Pacific Railroad and Pinal County were liable for the deaths of the Vargos and Ronnie Felix, jurors at a second trial will be asked to assess monetary damages.
Southern Pacific blames Pinal County, the State of Arizona and the late John Vargo for the 1988 accident. The railroad claims Vargo had been driving negligently, noting that a postmortem blood-alcohol test indicated Vargo had been drinking.
For its part, Pinal County has admitted the Ethington Road crossing was a "significant hazard" to passersby. But the county blames Southern Pacific, the State of Arizona and John Vargo for the fatal accident.
The State of Arizona--which isn't a defendant in the suit--blames Southern Pacific and Pinal County for not finishing the crossing project until it was too late.
"We can lead the railroad and the county to the water," says ACC railroad-safety chief Don Thompson, "but we can't make them drink. In this case, they didn't drink until after they should have."
Although Pinal County sheriff's investigators have concluded that John Vargo--and not Ronnie Felix--likely was driving the pickup that day, it remains to be seen whether Southern Pacific will be able to prove it at trial. The point could be important. Had Ronnie Felix been driving, the alcohol issue would be rendered moot.
Investigators didn't find any open containers of alcohol near the accident scene, but Vargo's blood-alcohol level did indicate the equivalent of a couple of beers in his system. Vargo's widow, Ginger, is irate that authorities took blood-alcohol readings of her dead husband, while allowing the Southern Pacific engineer to leave without being tested.
"What do you think the public would have said if they had just taken blood from the dead policemen that Richard Horowitz killed up in Phoenix?" she says, referring to the 1990 head-on crash in which an intoxicated Phoenix attorney rammed into two police officers. "You read about all those train wrecks in which the engineer was drunk or high. It's just not right."
Judge Bean, in pretrial rulings, has sent out mixed messages concerning the responsibility of Southern Pacific and Pinal County for the accident.
Southern Pacific contends that federal laws prohibit civil lawsuits against railroads in many crossing-safety cases. While acknowledging "a decided split of legal authority," Bean ruled earlier this year against the railroad.
But the judge then surprised everyone by ruling in favor of Pinal County on the same question, letting the county off the hook "as to the issues of warning devices and construction." The United States Supreme Court a few weeks ago agreed to consider the issue in a Georgia crossing case similar to the one in Pinal County.
The idea that federal law prohibits lawsuits against railroads is sadly laughable for those who lost family and friends in the Labor Day, 1988, crash. "To me it's as if the railroad is saying it has carte blanche to do what it wants--a license to kill," says Ron Felix Sr.
He and the others continue to do what the grief-stricken do: Even now, four years after the deaths, they say they are trying to strike a balance between dealing with their loss and being obsessed by it.
Many of the immediate family members underwent extensive counseling after the deaths of their loved ones. Even with that help, Ron Felix Sr. says, he required hospitalization because he couldn't handle the stress and depression connected with his son's death.
Several days after the fatal accident, Felix Sr. returned to Ethington Road. "I don't know what I was looking for," he says, closing his eyes for an extended moment. "I saw the hypodermic needles they had used on Ronnie. I saw where his body had landed. It hit me that I had a son that I wasn't going to see anymore. I had to find out why it happened. Ever since I found out, my blood has been boiling."
Ginger Vargo White has kept Candice's bedroom just as it was on the morning her daughter died. She says she has learned some terrible truths about how government and big business sometimes operate.
"I don't ask for someone to tell me to fix my brakes when I know they need fixing," she says. "It's not enough to lose people you love. I just can't believe the railroad and the government can get away with killing people."
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