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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Crews delayed en route to May 7 plane crash at train crossings

It’s no secret to the pilots who regularly use Felts Field that the airport sometimes is blocked by trains.

Lyndon Amestoy is one of many who worried that the Union Pacific track just south of Felts Field could one day inhibit rescuers from reaching pilots in need, said Terry Maxfield, a waitress and former owner of the Skyway Cafe at Felts Field.

“It’s something all pilots down here discuss,” she said.

Earlier this month Amestoy and Richard Runyon died May 7 when their plane crashed into the Spokane River. Some emergency crews were delayed more than five minutes in getting to the scene by trains along the Union Pacific track.

Although autopsies indicated that the men likely died as a result of injuries suffered on impact, the incident has highlighted a vulnerability at Felts.

Before Spokane International Airport, Felts was Spokane’s main airport. It still handles significant air traffic. Last year, there were 54,881 takeoffs and landings at Felts.

Emergency response officials are evaluating the incident and will work with railroads to find out if improved communications with railroads could improve emergency response, Spokane Fire Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer said. No other part of Spokane is as easily cut off by trains as the area where Felts Field sits.

“It may change our deployment to Felts Field,” he said. “There isn’t anywhere else I can think of that is as unique as Felts Field.”

According to dispatch records, emergency crews were delayed by at least two trains as firefighters and divers were rushing to the scene.

The initial call about the plane came in about 3:55 p.m. At the time, the plane was in distress but still in the air. The caller requested that emergency crews head to the airport.

At 4 p.m. some fire units reported that they were delayed by a train at Mission Avenue. It passed there within a couple minutes, but more units reported being blocked closer to Felts by 4:03 p.m. – though apparently not for long.

Just before 4:04 p.m., dispatch announced that the plane had crashed in the river, and water response teams were called to the scene. Until 4:17 p.m., crews appeared to access the scene, but then another train blocked more crews, including at least one fire department water rescue unit and at least four Spokane County Sheriff’s Office divers. Those crews finally were able to pass around 4:25 p.m.

Todd Woodard, spokesman for the Spokane International Airport, which oversees Felts Field, said he is unaware of any other emergency at Felts in which response was significantly delayed by a train. He said, however, that airport officials hope to participate in talks with emergency providers and Union Pacific.

“We are aware of the situation that’s been going on a long, long time,” Woodard said. “It’s always a variable.”

Woodard said trains sometimes stop near Felts, but the railroad has agreed not to halt trains while blocking both main crossings to Felts, on Fancher Way and Park Road.

The issue will be discussed Monday by the Spokane City Council. City leaders have expressed concerns about increasing train traffic in the city, particularly of trains carrying oil.

“This sounds like an exact instance of what we’ve been concerned about with increased train traffic,” said Jon Snyder, the council’s public safety committee chairman.

But officials say trains rarely slow response. Spokane Fire Capt. Roger Libby has spent the past 10 years of his 34-year career stationed at Fire Station 8. That’s the closest station to Felts. It sits adjacent to the Mission Avenue Union Pacific crossing that delayed some units’ response to Felts.

Libby said most of the station’s traffic is to the west and not impacted by the crossing. If the station gets a call to the east and a train is on the tracks, there’s an easy go-around: head west on Mission Avenue, south on Freya and back east on Trent Avenue. But there isn’t a simple way to get to Felts or a few other areas between the track and river.

Libby remembers only one other incident in which crews were significantly delayed by a train. About a year ago, crews were called to a fire at a business on Waterworks Street, he said. Two fire trucks made it the scene before a long train blocked access.

“It seemed like a long time,” Libby said. But he added: “I don’t think it had a dramatic effect on that particular fire.”

Francisco Castillo, a California-based spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, noted that UP operates a response-management center 24 hours a day.

On the day of the plane crash, emergency responders in Spokane notified UP to stop train traffic at 4:24 p.m., he said.

Schaeffer agreed that emergency service providers in Spokane enjoy a positive relationship with railroads.

“They’re willing to help and they’re extraordinarily proactive,” he said.

This story was changed on May 18, 2015 to correct an error regarding the direction of calls from Spokane Fire Station 8 that could be impacted by the train track crossing Mission Avenue.

Staff writer Kip Hill and staff editor Addy Hatch contributed to this report.
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