Scattered along a ditch only feet from a Harlem train track was a Bible, Christmas wreath, toy bubble gun and a van torn into a mass of shredded metal - the remnants of a fatal accident.
The accident happened about 3:30 p.m. Monday near the intersection of Planer Mill Road and Gordon Highway, just outside the city limits of Harlem. Carlene Flakes, of Bobcat Lane in Harlem, drove her Ford Aerostar van across the railroad tracks - which did not have a warning gate or lights, Columbia County sheriff's Deputy Randy Matthys said.
The van stopped at a stop sign - located about 10 feet from the track - to turn onto Gordon Highway, but "the driver apparently didn't realize she was hanging over the track," Deputy Matthys said.
Flakes' van was struck in the back by the train and was sent spinning and flipping about 70 feet into a ditch, knocking down a railroad warning pole in the process.
Flakes was taken to the Medical College of Georgia Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
"I'm in shock," said Tanesha Bennett of Augusta, who witnessed the crash while driving to lunch. "It was like something you see on T.V."
Two of the van's tires broke off and flew out into Gordon Highway as did the warning pole. No other vehicles were damaged, but Bennett said the pole came close to her car.
"If we would have kept going like we were, it probably would have hit us," she said.
Police closed off two of Gordon Highway's four lanes for about an hour, and several people gathered along the road to examine the wreckage.
Latasha Green of Harlem, another witness, said the train gave plenty of warning.
"He was blowing his whistle for a long time," she said. "It was really loud."
It was the second train-automobile crash in the county since March of 2001.
Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said the accident should make motorists more aware of the dangers of railroad crossings.
"Don't get boxed in on a crossing," he advised. "Never drive on a crossing until you are sure you can clear the tracks."
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