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Ralph Velasquez, brother of Willie, sues the Railroad Kings: Part 1

Ralph Velasquez, in a historical 16-page complaint, is suing Union Pacific, Burlington, General Electric, OxyCam and SafeTran in Federal Court, presided by Judge Royal Ferguson, a Clinton appointee.

Velasquez, his ex-wife Leticia, and their four children are the survivors of a nightmare that began at 5:00 a.m. on June 28th, 2004, when a freight train collision created a chlorine and an anhydrous ammonium gas leak in southwest Bexar County. Four people died that night, including the Union Pacific train conductor. The media failed to count a "lodger", and this is what happens when you count bodies according to Union Pacific.

The tragedy happened in southwest Bexar County, near Loop 1604 and Nelson Road, after a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train, waiting for a Union Pacific train to pass, was struck on the side by the latter train. Burlington had 123 cars that night, when 80 is a regular load. The cars were empty, and traveling west, when the Union Pacific train, car #63, made impact, creating a tsunami of poisonous gas.

So what. Union Pacific saw over 9,000 accidents and 145 deaths in the last ten years, says Kastely. And it's part of the cost of doing business for the railroads. It's in their budgets, part of the calculation, explains Isabel De la Riva, part of Kastely's legal team, who also worked on the Esperanza case.

De la Riva is calling the Velasquez case the "Pinto" case for the railroads.

In other words, ya basta.

Velasquez, fiftyish and with the look of a man who has seen la muerte, with the clock ticking loudly inside him, told me his story alongside Kastely and De la Riva this past Wednesday night:

He had returned home early after taking his children on a fishing trip that was rained out. Everyone went to sleep. Then, a noise woke him up. He looked at the clock. 5:07 a.m. Leticia was choking, and that's when Ralph saw it.

A cloud, a wave, a rolling fog of something that was within 50' of engulfing his house.

There was no way to avoid it. He started choking too, coughing up blood, tissue, and what he later learned were pieces of his lungs.

He and Leticia gathered up the kids, rushing to their car, instinctively realizing that the only chance they had were the back roads, to move faster than the fog sweeping down on them. They took the backroad, only to be snared by a neighbor's barbed wire fence. Desperately, Leticia tried to open the fence, and then tried again, and finally Velasquez just rammed their way through, ripping off the sunroof and windshield wipers, exposing them to the creeping gas now entering the car all around them.

Then they hit what seemed to be a "sea of mud." It had been raining all that week, and Velasquez said it changed the landscape so that he didn't know where they were.

"Daddy, go right, go to the left," the Velasquez children frantically gave advice as the car spun, whirring, gaining momentum, as they took off toward a field of weeds. Then they came to a place where they just couldn't see ahead of them. A ravine. Velasquez backed up the car as fast as he could, stepped on the gas, and somehow, the car lurched, jumping across the emptiness. That's when they saw an open area, where Velasquez knew a rancher who was keeping undocumented workers locked in a barn.

In a mad rush, he freed the men in the barn so that they would have a chance.

From there, he knew where he was.

At the first gas station he called 911. "Are we gonna die?," his daughter cried. Velasquez was bleeding from his nose, and after fifteen minutes of explaining and then waiting and waiting, got hung up on.

He hurried to Wilford Hall, where he and his family were stripped, decontaminated, and where Ralph spent 2 days in ICU.

It is a milagro that he lived. The doctors told him that he should have died. Like the other four people who didn't make it that night. His neighbors and the train conductor.

The railroad industry sees 2 1/2 derailments a day, says Kastely. In 2004, San Antonio had three serious train derailments alone - forcing Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to demand accountability from Union Pacific.

But that's the trouble. To whom is Union Pacific accountable? Not to us.

Kastely believes that the railroad industry sees "accidents" as a consequence of industry. Which I understand as lax government regulation. Think mining. Or the New Orleans levees.

She cites the railroad's moratorium on upkeep, the employee RIFs, the limitations on new hires, the skeletal crew, the overworked employees pulling double shifts - in short, the cost-cutting measures endemic in many of the industries essential to our national stability. And security.

Most of the train derailments have occurred in poorer communities, where the railroads cross frequently. Poor people are vulnerable to settlements, they don't want to go to trial. And the industry, she says, knows this well.

Velasquez says that about 500 lawyers have called on him, including Johnny Cochran. But he was looking for the right lawyer, the one who would understand the national picture, someone who cared about the latino community, someone with a track record of beating the odds. And he wanted someone to go the whole way with him.

He may not live to see what he has done. But with Kastely besides him, we've already won.

And Willie, his brother, would be so proud.


mimaldonado said…
Ms. Renaud,

And did you know that another area where a worse tragedy might occur (Blue Star) has been re-zoned for residential, mixed-use development? A few neighbors and myself tried to reason with the zoning commission that this area, formerly industrial (Big Tex, W.R. Grace/Texas Vermiculite, Co.) is more than likely contaminated and criss-crossed with high traffic railroad lines that frequently haul hazardous waste at speeds upwards of 40 mph at all hours of the night and day. The developer laughed. "The day they put a moratorium on building near railroad tracks..." he said. In 2004 there were two derailments within a mile of here, that property. In one, an engine fell into the river spilling deisel fuel. In another, several derailed cars nearly missed Brackenridge High School. I've asked the mayor point blank if the City has an emergency management plan for such an occassion. All I got was a blank stare and an admonition from my City Councilwoman telling me that the mayor was not prepared to give me an answer, could I please write it down, and he'll get back to me? I did. He hasn't. He probably won't.
I read your story, and I know that it's in part, the railroads that need to take responsibility, but it's also, in part, the responsibility of the City, the County, to not put people near railroad tracks. The railroads do not encourage development near their tracks. I know it can't always be helped, but when the City points its finger at the railroads and the railroads point their finger at the City, no one wins--especially not the people who were injured.
Thank you for your blog, Ms. Renaud. I wish there was an alternative to the E-News and the Current in this town. At least I'm glad there's you.

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