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Series of human errors led to death of two railroad workers in SD

The site of the train accident near Edgemont, S.D., that left two men dead in January 2017. Courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board

Story updated Tuesday, Sept. 11

EDGEMONT, S.D. — A series of human errors lead to the death of two Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad workers who were hit by a train in southwest South Dakota in January of 2017, said the National Transportation Safety Board in a report published Thursday, Sept. 6.

The Jan. 17 accident near Edgemont, which the board said was preventable, occurred when a train traveling at 35 mph struck and killed two of three workers on the crew, who had been clearing snow and ice from a track switch and were within the tracks.

The Rapid City Journal reported:

As the train proceeded around a left-hand curve and underneath a highway overpass, the engineer and conductor spotted a three-man crew working to clear snow and ice from a switch on the tracks ahead. The engineer and conductor began the first of several horn blasts and applied the brakes, but the train with four engines and 135 empty cars could not be stopped in time, the report said.

The crew working on the tracks, one of whom was using a backpack blower to remove snow, apparently did not see or hear the approaching train.

Twelve seconds after the train's horn began blowing, the train struck and killed Richard Lessert, 35, of Black Hawk, and Douglas Schmitz, 58, of Custer.

The deaths were the 54th and 55th to result from 52 fatal railroad roadway worker accidents in the United States over the past 21 years, according to the NTSB.

According to NTSB documents, the investigation found a designated watchman/lookout was not devoting his full attention, as required by regulations, to detecting approaching trains, but also wasn't provided the equipment necessary to perform his duties. However, the report said some railroads don't provide the necessary watchman.

Additionally, the NTSB said none of the members of the three-man crew had been tested on the visual detection of trains during the year prior to the accident, and the sight distance at the accident scene was inadequate for a train-approach warning by a single watchman/lookout.

"These accidents are completely preventable when the people involved, from the workers to the regulators, follow well-established rules and perform their duties with a focus on safety," said Robert Hall, the NTSB's director of the Office of Rail, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials.

The 34-page final report is available at