Train Hits Car; Three Dead

by Andrea Hahn, the Southern


WALNUT HILL - A Jefferson County man and his two young granddaughters are dead after a Sunday morning collision between a freight train and a car.
Stephen Gilbert, 63, and his granddaughters, Brittany Pitts, 11, and Brianna Pitts, 8, were killed instantly when a Norfolk Southern freight train hit their car at the Old Centralia Lane crossing near the Marion County line at about 9:50 a.m. Train engineer Jefferey Morgan, 47, made the

emergency call after the collision. He told authorities he saw the car come into the intersection. He said he immediately began braking, and he used the train's horn to sound a warning. However, he was not able to stop the train in time. It hit the car and pushed it about 2,000 feet before coming to a rest northwest of the crash site.

Morgan said the train was going just under 50 miles per hour before the collision.

Initial investigation indicates the car turned onto Old Centralia Lane from Campbell Road and crossed the tracks in front of the train, Jefferson County Sheriff Roger Mulch said.

Mulch noted the train's headlights were on bright. He said the flashing standards at the crossing were in working order. The crossing does not have a crossing gate.

Jefferson County Coroner Dr. Richard Garretson said the family was on the way to church.

"(Gilbert) was to have been mentioned in church and the girls were going to give him a birthday card," he said. Gilbert turned 63 years old Saturday, the day before the crash.

Garretson said there is no reason to believe from initial investigation that any sort of medical condition contributed to the tragedy. He said testimony from the engineer indicates Gilbert may have become aware of the train before the crash.

"This happens too often. A family of five was killed by a train three or four years ago in Jefferson County," Garretson said. "I drove by this crossing after the collision. There is no crossing gate, but it is a well-lighted crossing, and the signals were working."

Gilbert was the founder of Die Cutters, Inc., with his son, Robert, and CCE Tech, according to his obituary. Die Cutters, Inc., where die cutting machines are designed, manufactured and marketed, recently won an award from the Illinois Small Business Development Center at Kaskaskia College.

Gilbert was the son of the Rev. Robert Gilbert of Centralia. Among his survivors are his children, Robert Gilbert and Cynthia Pitts, and his wife, Kathleen Gilbert.

The girls attended Rome Grade School. Brittany was in sixth grade and Brianna was in third grade. Both were involved in extracurricular activities. Brittany played basketball, softball and soccer. Brianna was in Pee-Wee Cheerleading, and, like her sister, was a basketball and softball player.

They were the children of Owen and Cynthia Pitts of Walnut Hill. They also leave behind a half brother, Justin Pitts, among other family members.

Services for the three will be held together. Visitation is from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. Wednesday at Garnier & Sons Funeral Home in Centralia. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Thursday.

The family has asked that memorials in Gilbert's name be made to the Salem South Disaster Relief fund. Memorials made in the girls' names will go to the Rome Grade School booster club to benefit the sports programs.