17-year-old pedestrian struck and killed in San Luis Obispo

Tribune photo by David Middlecamp

A San Luis Obispo teen was killed Thursday afternoon when he was struck by an Amtrak train while trying to cross the tracks near Cal Poly.

Police investigators say the Oscar Gonzalez, 17, likely did not hear the train coming about a quarter-mile south of California and Foothill boulevards because he was wearing headphones.

It is the fourth death in that area in 35 years, though the three previous deaths were near the crossing at the intersection.

The train stopped off California Boulevard, near the end of Murray Street, after the crash about 3:50 p.m.

The San Luis Obispo High School student, who just completed his junior year, was crossing the tracks toward California from Murray Street when he was hit, police said. There was no indication that it was a suicide attempt, police said.

Two other young males were with Gonzalez, San Luis Obispo police Capt. Ian Parkinson said. They were not hit.

“The friends did hear the train coming and they yelled at him but he didn’t hear them,” Parkinson said. “They are obviously devastated from watching this unfold.”

Parkinson said the train’s engineer saw the teenager, hit the emergency brake and sounded his horn before hitting him.

“He was struck by the front of the train and thrown from the track area,” Parkinson said.

Police interviewed both witnesses who were said to have been with Gonzalez when he was struck. One carried a skateboard and the other carried a backpack.

Passengers on the train remained on board but those closest to the accident were moved out of its sight to other cars while investigators interviewed witnesses and the train’s staff, Parkinson said.

The Amtrak Coast Starlight was headed north to its final destination of Seattle. The train’s next stop was Paso Robles.

The train, carrying about 240 passengers and a crew of 12, was kept at the accident scene for about two hours before it headed north at 6 p.m.

“These incidents are always tragic,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. “These kinds of things can be prevented if people wouldn’t trespass on the railroad and would observe warnings. … A train cannot swerve out of the way — it is a lot of mass and motion and can’t stop short.”

The train’s engineer was to be replaced at a nearby stop and be offered support for any emotional distress, Magliari said.

Police said they did not know where the three persons were heading or why they were crossing the train tracks but suspect that they were going to a friend’s house.

A highly traveled dirt and rock path leads directly to the train tracks from a sidewalk on Murray Street. Police investigators say that the three were crossing the tracks from there. There is no fence between several multi-unit homes and the tracks.

The crossing at California and Foothill boulevards, about a quarter of a mile north of where Thursday’s death occurred, is heavily used by pedestrians and bicyclists, especially during the school year when Cal Poly students travel from their apartments to class.

The California Public Utilities Commission in 2004 said that 3,000 people and 150 vehicles use the crossing every day. More current data was not available Thursday.

Three people have died at the crossing since 1975. A fourth woman was severely injured in 1987.

The death of Cal Poly student Jason Sy, who was hit by a train while crossing on his mountain bike in November 2001, prompted surrounding property owners to discuss how to make the crossing safer.In 2004, Union Pacific announced it would install a crossing gate, flashing lights and fencing at the crossing. It was installed that year.

Earlier that year, the three property owners — Union Pacific, Cal Poly and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — reached a settlement to pay for the equipment, which was estimated to cost between $150,000 and $300,000.

4 other incidents near train crossing in SLO

Since 1975, four people have died and one severely injured at a train crossing near Cal Poly at California and Foothill boulevards.

• Nov. 14, 2001: Cal Poly student Jason Sy, 18, was hit by a train and killed while crossing on his bicycle. He was thrown into a metal pole when his bike was clipped by a Union Pacific freight train.

• Sept. 19, 1993: Travis Brown, 21, was killed when driving his car over the tracks about 1 a.m. on a Sunday. The San Luis Obispo High graduate was leaving the Mormon Church’s Institute of Religion youth center. The freight train dragged his car a quarter-mile before coming to a stop.

• Aug. 20, 1987: Mona Lorge was severely injured while driving her Ford Granada over the crossing. The Los Osos woman, then 35 years old, slowed and hesitated as she approached the stop sign, witnesses said.

• Feb. 6, 1975: The first death at the crossing happened when Cal Poly student Ken Golding was hit while driving home from the Institute of Religion. The 22-year-old failed to halt at the stop sign, and it wasn’t clear whether the engineer blew the train’s horn.