Friends of BNSF train victims 'in shock'

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldOctober 22, 2013 

Star Dog Rios Fatal Train

Roni Rios, 60, of Kennewick, holds the leash Tuesday of a 5-year-old boxer named Star that belonged to Melinda Williams, the Kennewick woman killed Monday after she was hit by a train on the tracks adjacent to West Canal Drive near Volland Street in Kennewick.

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Friends of a couple hit by a train in Kennewick say they are shocked by the incident and struggling to comprehend how the man and woman ended up in the locomotive's path.

The BNSF Railway train killed Melinda D. Williams, 50, when it hit her on the tracks Monday near Canal Drive, officials said. She was identified Tuesday by the Benton County Coroner's office.

Williams' boyfriend, Samuel W. Frank, 47, was treated at Trios Health, formerly Kennewick General Hospital, and then taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He was in serious condition Tuesday in the hospital's intensive care unit.

Alan Stark, a close friend of the couple, remembers Williams, whom he calls "Mindy," as an opinionated woman who was always willing to lend a helping hand, he said.

Stark's aviator sunglasses hid the tears forming in his eyes as he rested against his black pickup truck and spoke about his friend.

"It just shows how fragile life is," he said. "I haven't met anyone that had anything bad to say about Mindy. She was a straight-up person. She helped a lot of people."

Williams' natural beauty and polite nature will stick with her friend Roni Rios, who saw the couple shortly before the collision when they stopped by to pick their dog up for a walk.

Rios had been watching the dog, a boxer named Star, who was not injured.

"Everybody is just in shock," Rios said. "God picked a flower yesterday when he took her."

It could take weeks before authorities can review data and video from the BNSF train, according to Sgt. Ken Lattin, Kennewick police spokesman.

Investigators hope to pinpoint when the train's whistle was sounded, Lattin said.

"The video will be the telling thing," Lattin said. "The big question is why didn't they hear the horn and get off the tracks?

Investigators also hope the data can tell them when the train's brakes were applied, Lattin said.

BNSF declined to comment Tuesday on the specifics of their investigation into the crash.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told the Herald on Monday that the train, which was traveling 44 mph, sounded its whistle and applied its brakes before striking the couple.

"We want the public to realize that being on all railroad property is considered trespassing," Melonas said. "Criminal citations can be issued. We don't want anyone getting hurt."

At least 15 people have been killed by BNSF trains in Washington this year, Melonas said.

The couple was walking Star at 4:09 p.m. when the incident occurred, officials said. The train's two crew members reported that the couple tried to get off the tracks.

Frank flagged down Joshua Durham, who was driving on Canal moments after the collision. Durham used his belt to tie a tourniquet around Frank's arm, he said.

Frank was more concerned that Williams may still be in danger on the tracks, Durham said. Friends of Frank and Williams say that's an example of the close relationship the couple had.

While they have battled substance abuse problems in the past and sometimes struggled to find housing, they always tried to stay loyal to each other, friends said. They were living together at Columbia Mobile Village in Kennewick.

"They were really close to each other," said Paul Boyus, who knew the couple from the Therapeutic Innovations & Recovery shelter. "They were their whole worlds."

The couple stopped into the Kennewick day shelter when they needed a meal and help with housing, said Steve Gaulke, the shelter's executive director. Though the couple kept to themselves, Gaulke also noticed how close they seemed to be.

"They were very aware of each other's needs when they were here," he said. "That was sort of unique to see something like that."

Stark said the tragedy has left him confused and wondering if the incident could have been avoided.

"This came as a surprise. I don't understand how it happened," he said, pausing for a long time and looking off into the distance. "I don't understand how this happened."

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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