NEW BOSTON, Mich. (WJBK) - People living in one Michigan city are fired up after watching a neighbor's house burn down as a train stopped on the tracks blocked fire crews en route to the scene. Now, they're wondering if their lives will be at stake during the next emergency.
Every second counts when responding to an emergency, and in New Boston idle trains have cost first responders plenty of them. And it may have played a role in a man losing his home.
"I got up, looked out the window and saw the house on fire," says neighbor Rufus Thames.
Thames watched helplessly as his neighbor's home burned. And then it hit him.
"Everybody in the neighborhood was just kind of frustrated because it could have been one of us," he says.
The homeowner was too shaken up to talk about it. Firefighters were forced to take an alternate route to the house on Winding Creek in New Boston. Their initial path was blocked by an idle train.
"The trains sit there for hours at a time," Thames says.
"Maybe something could've been done, but I don't know," says Heather Sypula, a neighbor. "It's 20 minutes that it took for them to get here and it could have been any single one of us."
However, Huron Township Fire Chief Ed Gillman says the first fire engine got to the house about 14 minutes after dispatchers received the initial 911 call around 11 a.m. Wednesday. He says it's possible the house could not have been saved even if the train had not been blocking several crossings. Even so, residents say the underlying problem remains.
"My son has allergies," says Sypula. "What if he's in a situation where he can't breathe and we need to get EMS? It's not just fire."
"I'm afraid I might have an emergency need or a heart attack and nobody will be able to get to us," Thames says.
Gillam says trains are held up when a TDSI, a distribution service company, loads and unloads cars on the tracks. Huron Township lost the authority to issue fines for idle trains blocking tracks for more than 15 minutes. Now, they sit idle for at least twice as long, often longer.
"The train blocks Willow and it also blocks Felt and Huron and I see it all the time - half hour, hour," says Sypula.
Marlene Krause, a Huron Township trustee, says for now, building an overpass is a financial pipe dream. It could cost nearly a million dollars.
"We've been trying to work with TDSI and the railroad but it's just that no one wants to dish out that kind of money," she says. "We've been also tried to get the county involved. And it's something that's going to have to be addressed because it is a serious issue out here."
The only thing they can do in the meantime is hope for the best when circumstances are the worst.
Thankfully no one was home when the fire started. Firefighters were able to save a couple of pets inside. The homeowner hopes he can build a new house in the same spot.
As for this train it's been in this same spot for more than half an hour.