By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
CHINOOK - Two employees of the Montana Department of Transportation died about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday after a westbound freight train hit the state-owned vehicle they were in at a railroad crossing about 2 miles east of Chinook.
"It's a tragedy," said Mick Johnson, administrator of MDT's Great Falls District Office.
Johnson said the MDT employees - Gerald Bratlien of Great Falls and Betty Canoy of Helena - were looking at property the department wants to buy for a project to realign a secondary state road north of Chinook.
Montana Highway Patrol officer Jeff Martin said Wednesday that Bratlien and Canoy died at the scene.
The Highway Patrol received a report of the crash at 12:25 p.m. Wednesday.
Witnesses at the scene said the vehicle was backing south across the tracks, at the crossing known as the Reed crossing, when the train struck the front passenger side of the white 2004 Ford Taurus, an MHP report said. The car spun around and came to rest on its top in the ditch on the south side of the track about 50 yards west of the crossing.
The car caught fire with both occupants still inside, the report said.
Blaine County coroner Marvin Edwards said real estate paperwork Bratlien and Canoy were apparently working on at the time of the crash was found on the ground.
Parts of the car were scattered in the area around the blackened vehicle, which was crushed on both sides. Pieces were in the ditch as far as 50 feet east of the car.
The BNSF train crew, en route from Chicago to Portland, Ore., sounded its horn as the train approached the crossing and tried to stop, railway spokesman Gus Melonas said. The crossing had flashing lights, he said.
Melonas said some BNSF freight trains were delayed up to an hour and 15 minutes until traffic could be rerouted on an adjacent track.
Mark Magliari of Amtrak said the Empire Builder passenger train was not delayed.
Highway Patrol officers and BNSF officials were still investigating the scene of the crash at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.