Railroad says it should have been informed of house crossing tracks

Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2000

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) -- A driver moving a house that was struck by an unscheduled train Saturday night never told the railroad he would be moving it across the tracks, a railroad spokesman says.

It was the driver's responsibility to notify the railroad, which would have stopped any trains until the house cleared the tracks, Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesman Gus Melonas said Tuesday.

''We were not notified,'' Melonas said. ''Obviously, trains can't stop. They can't swerve.''

It was unclear whether the driver, Jeffrey Douglas Ponder, 45, of Auburn, would have been informed that he should notify the railroad or check for unscheduled trains.

Ponder, who owns Emerald City Building Restoration, says he has been moving houses around the area for 20 years and was doing everything by the book, including securing 12 permits for the move from assorted jurisdictions.

He also says he has moved houses across tracks before and never advised the railroad.

A Pierce County deputy in a car was escorting the rig, but was at the next intersection and did not see the collision, sheriff's department spokesman Ed Troyer said.

Ponder was cited for driving under the influence. His blood-alcohol content was 0.04, well below the limit for normal drivers, but the state has a zero-tolerance policy for commercial operators.

Ponder was hauling the house across the tracks between Auburn and Sumner, but stopped as two men standing on the house tried to lift low-hanging wires.

One of the men, Anthony Payne, said he had about 10 seconds to react to the oncoming train.

The Portland-bound special Amtrak train was carrying 90 Seahawks fans home from Saturday's game.

When the train hit, Payne, 25, of Auburn, was thrown into the air. He slid into a gully, landed in a grassy field and walked away with only a scratch and bruise near his right eye. He said he would have been killed if Ponder hadn't moved the house forward slightly.

The other man on the roof, David Higman of Seattle, slid through the debris to the ground, unhurt.

No serious injuries were reported, though Payne and several people from the train were treated and released by area hospitals.

The house was demolished. The train engine was taken out of service. Most of the 90 Seahawks fans were bused to Portland.

In an interview with KIRO-TV on Tuesday, Ponder said he couldn't believe he was cited for driving under the influence when he saved lives by his reaction.

''There's been some bad things said about me that are not true,'' he said. ''The only thing I did was save lives.''

The house had been owned by Auburn residents Larry and Mickey Fassbind, who gave it to Ponder in exchange for his removing it from their property.

The Fassbinds donated the house several months ago to an Alaska Airlines fund-raising auction to benefit a child whose mother died last January in the crash of Flight 261 off the California coast.

A couple bought the house for $580 but didn't claim it after learning it would cost $20,000 to move, the Fassbinds said.

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