CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Volunteer fire chief Buster Varner was giving a safety demonstration at a school when a real call came in: A logging truck had collided with a passenger train at a crossing in the remote mountains of West Virginia.
Varner's unit was the first to arrive at the scene, and what he saw was alarming: A truck whose cab was crushed with the driver still inside, its logs thrown like toothpicks. Two train passenger cars flipped on their sides.
"It was a hell of a mess. I could not believe when I pulled up there," Varner said after returning home late Saturday morning to a bed that he hadn't seen since 5 a.m. Friday.
The driver was killed in the collision, which happened Friday afternoon along U.S. Route 250 atop Cheat Mountain, about 160 miles east of Charleston.
The Durbin & Greenbrier Railroad's Cheat Mountain Salamander train carrying 63 sightseers and four crew members had embarked on a fall foliage trip during prime leaf-watching season in the heavily forested area.
At the same time, Varner, chief of the Bartow-Frank-Durbin Volunteer Fire Department, was talking to school children about fire prevention and showing them a rescue demonstration with extrication equipment and a "pretend" patient.
Varner said the emergency call came about 1:30 p.m. Friday, and in a small community where most people are on a first-name basis, "I knew whoever was driving the truck was a friend or someone I knew real well."
He was right. Varner identified the victim Saturday as Danny Lee Kimble Sr. of Frank. Varner said he knew the Kimble family well and spoke to Kimble's son Saturday morning. He did not release Kimble's age.
"I grew up in the same town. He's a local boy," Varner said. "I knew he was driving the truck. I knew there was no way he could live through that."
While having to talk to a grieving family that he knows well is one of the drawbacks of living in a small town, Varner said he was uplifted by the support of volunteers who pitched in to help feed rescue workers and others.
"It was touching, I tell you that," he said. "The community pulls together around here when it's needed."
Varner said once he got the initial call, he told his dispatchers to make sure that every available helicopter was put on standby, and to contact every fire department in two counties, along with heavy-equipment units.
Varner said the front end of the logging truck, normally about 8 feet long, was crushed to 2 feet. He said it took more than three hours to remove Kimble's body. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Varner echoed comments made by Randolph County Sheriff Mark Brady a day earlier that it appeared the truck ran through crossing signals.
"I did not see any skid marks," Varner said, adding that passengers said they could see the truck driver, and that he was alert when the crash happened.
"I looked at the people around me in the car and said, 'He's going to hit us,'" passenger Greg Barringer was quoted by The Inter-Mountain of Elkins (http://bit.ly/160P5w8 ) as saying.
"We hoped if it would hit, that it would be the caboose, because it had no passengers in it. We saw and felt the truck hit the cars behind us and then we saw them tip over."
Twenty-three people were treated at the hospital for injuries, and another 42 were examined and found to be unharmed, said Davis Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Tracy Fath.
One of the train's passengers was in stable condition with unidentified injuries at the hospital Saturday, Fath said.
Four passengers were transferred to a Morgantown hospital, where a spokeswoman who answered the phone said she couldn't release patient information without first being provided their names.
Fath said those who weren't hurt received "comfort care" before leaving the hospital.
"In light of everything, it could have been so much worse," Fath said.
Route 250 was reopened by Saturday morning.
The railroad said in a message on its answering machine that the Cheat Mountain Salamander was idled Saturday due to the damage to the train and that it will issue refunds.
The Salamander takes tourists on 6.5-hour trips to areas reaching more than 4,000 feet in elevation during peak leaf season in October.