KELSO, Wash. -- Family and friends are remembering a Cowlitz County couple who were hit and killed by a train last week.
According to authorities, 29-year-old Gildardo Cruz Vera Strickler was driving with Sonya Wallace, 32, as his passenger when they were struck by an oncoming Amtrak passenger train. The two died instantly.
“I didn’t want to believe it was true,” said Sandra Aldridge, Wallace’s cousin, as she fought back tears. “My heart hurts so bad.”
Aldridge told KGW that Wallace leaves behind a one-year-old daughter who is now with family.
“I have a hard time dealing with the fact that she’s gone at all,” said friend Trista Jones of Wallace’s death.
Family described Wallace as “the life of everybody” who went out of her way to help others. “She was always so happy. Even in the gloomiest times, when nobody had anything. She always made sure they had something,” said Aldridge.
According to family, Wallace had married Strickler over the summer. An attempt to reach his family on Monday afternoon was unsuccessful.
The accident occurred Friday morning when Strickler was following his mother over a set of train tracks on Horseshoe Estates Road off of Pleasant Hill Road, roughly five miles North of Kelso. No Amtrak crew members or passengers were hurt. The tracks are owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
The crossing was also the same site of a 2015 fatal accident, according to the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office. In that incident, a woman was struck in her car and died.
While the crossing has a stop sign and a sign warning of train traffic, the location does not have any gates, lights, or bells to warn drivers. That raised some concern with Aldridge.
“They need to make it to where they need to blow their horn or let people know there’s a train coming,” she said. “I think they should do that for every crossing.”
Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, noted that the crossing is on a private road but said that the railroad places warning signs near crossings. Any additional safety measures like gates and lights, however, are the responsibility of the “roadway authority.” It wasn’t initially clear who owns or maintains Horeshoe Estates Road. Cowlitz County Officials weren’t able to immediately identify who the proper authority for the private road is either. Since the road is a private crossing and is not public, oncoming trains are not required to sound their horns.
Melonas said that BNSF investigators examined the crossing after the accident and determined that the crossing is clearly marked. BNSF is reviewing the crossing further, however, Melonas said.
It’s not clear how fast the train that hit Wallace and Strickler was traveling. However, an Amtrak spokesperson told KGW that the maximum speed for trains in that area is 79 miles per hour. Up to 60 trains travel on BNSF tracks through the area on a daily basis, added Melonas.