Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
At 7:25 a.m. Friday, Luciano Cuellar was five minutes from work, where he pieced roof trusses together at a South Valley lumber yard.
Police say that’s exactly when a Rail Runner train struck his car, killing him and his girlfriend — identified as 34-year-old Julie Vasquez — near the intersection of Desert Road and Second Street SW on the rainy Friday morning.
The pair had just dropped off their children before the crash, according to police, and the couple’s two young sons are now orphans, said family members who arrived at the crash scene hours later. One of Luciano’s children is only 1 month old.
New Mexico Rail Runner Express spokeswoman Augusta Meyers said preliminary footage from the #507 train, which was traveling south at 79 mph, shows the car going east in the westbound lane on Desert, passing a line of traffic waiting at the gate. The car then crossed the tracks and was hit by the train.
One of the gates was damaged, Meyers said. The speed of the train was “appropriate … for that location,” police said.
Luciano Cuellar, 35, was trapped in the car, while Vasquez was ejected. Both died at the scene. Vasquez was driving, according to police.
“When the arms are down, that’s … an indication that you need to stop. This may be one of those unfortunate situations in which a vehicle decided to go forward anyway,” Meyers said. “The arms are there to protect people and demonstrate that there is a train in the area.”
Family members arrived later in the morning. Cuellar’s brother, Francisco Cuellar, fell to his knees sobbing; family members hugged and cried, looking at the crumpled car on an embankment just east of the tracks.
“Oh, my God,” Francisco Cuellar repeated.
Train #507 was heading south to Belen with 35 passengers aboard when the crash occurred. None was injured, Meyers said. They were bused to their destinations.
The northbound #508 train from Belen was canceled, and 15 passengers at that location were bused to Albuquerque. No other trains were delayed because of the crash, Meyers said.
The engineer who drives the train will be on paid leave for three days, Meyers said.
Since Rail Runner service began on July 17, 2006, there have been 15 fatalities.
There have also been 10 “trespasser” incidents in which pedestrians, two of them bicyclists, encroached onto the 25-foot right of way on either side of the track.
On Friday, police found a car seat and baby items in the car and were worried one of the couple’s children was riding with them. But they combed the area without finding a child and later learned the children had been dropped off just before the crash.
All of the children have been accounted for, family members said. Cuellar and Vasquez each had four children, two of which belonged to both, Francisco Cuellar said. Luciano Cuellar had the infant, two 5-year-olds and a 6-year-old.
A distraught Francisco Cuellar said he and his brother were also orphans, and both faced many hardships.
“This is my life … I’ve already been through this so many times. Now it happened again,” he said.
Luciano Cuellar had just started working at Raks Building Supply about a month ago. He was trying to get his life back together and had just rented a new apartment a few weeks before.
“If there’s anything anyone should know, it’s that he had a hard life, he had his run-ins with the law, but he finally got his life together,” Francisco Cuellar said. “He got it together.”
Luciano Cuellar’s bosses, Leonard King and Juan Portillo, said he was reliable and could easily have worked his way up at the company. Vasquez would come eat lunch with her boyfriend, Portillo said.
“He knew how to work,” King said. “We’ll be sorry he’s gone.”
When police took the crime tape down from the intersection around midday, a tape-bordered photo was left next to a smashed rearview mirror in the rubble where the car had been towed.
It showed Luciano Cuellar and his son Luciano Cuellar Jr.
Journal Staff Writer Rick Nathanson contributed to this report.