Alberto Alfaro loved cars. His fascination went beyond how cars look to more about the inner-workings of the engine.
“He would tell me this is how you save the motor,” his mother, Gisela Saenz, recalls.
On February 1st of this year, Alfaro left the house with friends to a car meet in Southwest Miami without telling anybody at home.
“I opened the door of his room and he was laying in the bed on the cell phone. He saw me and threw me a kiss,” Saenz said, explaining that her son knew well she would have not approved him to be out late on a Sunday night.
That was the last time Saenz saw her 17-year-old son conscious.
Alfaro died after a vehicle driven by Sebastian A. Mendoza, 19, lost control at Southwest 137th Avenue at the railroad crossing. Mendoza also died in the crash.
For over two years, residents of the community in southwest Miami complained to county officials about the condition of the railroad crossing on Southwest 137th Avenue and Country Walk Drive. Residents feared that an accident could turn deadly because vehicles would go airborne after hitting the railroad crossing.
NBC 6 Investigators reviewed a trail of emails the attorneys uncovered between county and state officials, CSX representatives and residents dating back to October 2012. CSX Transportation, Inc., the company responsible for the maintenance of the area at the county’s expense, would schedule meetings and later cancel, causing delay after delay from October 2012 until the crossing was repaired a month after Alfaro and Mendoza lost their lives.
“What’s most disturbing about this case is that it could have been avoided,” said Robert Pelier, an attorney representing Saenz on a wrongful death lawsuit against CSX.
A Deadly Crash
It was close to midnight on February 1st when Alfaro and his friends were heading back home. Alfaro was sitting in the back of a Honda driven by Mendoza. His friend, Jose A. Molina, 18, sat next to the driver.
The Honda Accord was speeding southbound on Southwest 137th Avenue when the driver lost control as he drove over the railroad tracks. The car struck the west concrete curb, rolled over and struck two residence fences coming to a final rest at the backyard of one of the homes, according to an investigation by the Miami-Dade Police Department.
Surveillance video shows the Honda Accord crashing in the darkness after knocking down a fence. Molina, the only survivor, could be seen emerging from the window of the crashed car.
He later told detectives what happened.
“We were driving in the center lane and my friend got distracted and hit the bump on the railroad and lost control of his car,” the teen told police.
Alfaro, who was thrown from the vehicle, was transported to Kendall Regional Trauma Center where he was pronounced dead on Feb. 2 at 5 p.m. Maldonado was pronounced dead the next morning at the same hospital, records show.
Saenz now wonders if the deadly crash could have been prevented.
Robert Pelier and Jeannette Hernandez-Suarez are representing Saenz in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Sept. 14, 2015 against the owner of the railroad tracks, CSX Transportation, Inc., one of the nation’s largest railroad companies based in Jacksonville, Fla.
"The county didn’t do anything, CSX who has the contractual responsibility to do what they need to have done, didn’t do anything,” Pelier said. "And it wasn’t until this incredible young man lost his life in an accident that they realized: ‘Hey we better do something about it.'"
CSX, which recently reached an undisclosed settlement with Saenz, declined to comment for this story, but in court filings it denies responsibility for the crash. Instead, CSX attorneys wrote in court filings that speed and not wearing a seat belt contributed to Alfaro’s death. State and county officials, all expecting to be sued as well, won’t comment either.
E-mails Show Growing Concerns
The correspondence between county and state officials, residents and CSX representatives shows a disturbing pattern that went on for over two years without any repairs done on the railroad crossing.
On Oct. 10, 2012, Paola Baez, a rails program administrator with the Florida Department of Transportation, described the crossing as being in “horrible condition,” on an email with the subject line, “railroad crossing examination,” sent to Octavio Marin, a Miami-Dade County engineer and others.
CSX responded on Oct. 18, 2012: “We’ll work up an OOM estimate for your review with CSX replacing the crossing surface and …paving and any other additional roadway work being the responsibility of the county.”
A year later, Marin sent another email (Oct. 9, 2013) to CSX requesting to “schedule the replacement of the surface ASAP.” In addition, Marin filled out a complaint form on the CSX site that he also emailed to the company: “…the crossing is in terrible condition and that this is going to cause a major accident.”
Later on Feb. 26, 2014, Marin wrote to CSX about additional complaints including that a small vehicle “had been seen going airborne because of this sudden elevation.”
Another complaint forwarded to CSX was about vehicles “going airborne flying in the air every second of the day.”
A person who lives near the tracks wrote an email to the county in March 2014 complaining about the crossing and said despite previous complaints,“nothing has been done.”
CSX did respond to county officials multiple times from October 2012 through 2014. At one point, a company official wrote that it “will inspect and take the appropriate action.” But appointments were canceled and rescheduled.
Hernandez-Suarez, who represents Saenz on the wrongful lawsuit, said the emails show a lack of disregard for the community.
“And you just see the inaction. There’s no sense of urgency yet there are residents that are complaining,” Hernandez-Suarez said. “Meetings are postponed, holidays come around… people go on vacation.”
It wasn’t until six weeks after Alfaro and his friend died that a school board employee wrote:
“Wow!!! You have no idea the condition. I advised the transportation director … and he can barely believe it.”
On March 27, 2015, the work to repair the crossing began – two and half years later after the first complaint was documented. This time, a state worker wrote via email on March 30: “Mission accomplished!!!”
But it was too late for Alfaro and his friend.
“They sent an email saying “mission accomplished” with exclamation points as if it was this great thing that they did,” said Hernandez-Suarez. “Yet they did it after two young men lost their lives and that’s just inexcusable.”
Coping With the Loss of a Son
Saenz, a native of Nicaragua, and her daughters, ages 18 and 6, are trying to get used to life without Alfaro. The single mother misses her son’s sense of humor and laughter.
Her eyes lit up when she talks about Alfaro, a six-feet-tall, eleventh grader, and his upbeat personality but always showing respect as he called her “señora” [ma’am] and “beautiful lady.”
The worst part of losing her only son, she says, is that she won’t see him grow old and be a mechanic like he always talked about.
“He would take care of us like we were the girls…his girls,” she said showing a smile.
For now, Saenz takes comfort in knowing that her son’s death is helping seven other families through organ donation.
“I feel proud. Somebody can see, live and breathe,” the mother said with teary eyes.
To file a complaint about a railroad issue involving CSX, click on this link.
For all CSX railroad emergencies, including blocked crossings or track, crossing accidents, crossing signal problems, theft, vandalism and unsafe employee driving and any other emergency, call 1-800-232-0144.
To report a rail emergency pertaining FEC call, 1-800-342-1131 and press 1 to report a railroad emergency in Florida and for Tri-Rail dial, 844-200-7233.
To file a complaint or ask questions about services in Miami-Dade County, dial 3-1-1, or 305-468-5900. In Broward dial 3-1-1 or 954-831-4000.