Coroner: Train collision a suicide — (The Modesto Bee)

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The Modesto Bee

By MICHAEL MELLO, BEE STAFF WRITER

Last Updated: May 7, 2004, 06:58:50 AM PDT

Sharon McGinnis had a lethal amount of prescription drugs in her system when she swerved around several cars on Claus Road and into the path of a hurtling Amtrak train, according to a coroner’s report released Thursday.
The March 23 crash killed McGinnis, 66, of Modesto and injured three others when her flaming vehicle spun into another car in northeast Modesto.
The Stanislaus County coroner’s office has ruled the death a suicide because of McGinnis’ history of severe depression and the drugs in her system — a toxic combination of two anti-depressants and codeine.
“The drugs were at a level at which, if she were not involved in the crash, I could have certified her death on the drugs alone,” said Dr. Gregory A. Schmunk, a pathologist with the coroner’s office. “There were quite a few pills in her system.”
Schmunk said it’s difficult to tell whether McGinnis could have lived for “minutes or hours” after consuming the pills. “Obviously, at these levels she was capable of driving a vehicle. That was amazing in itself.”
Schmunk said there was evidence that McGinnis ingested the pills shortly before her death. Numerous prescription bottles littered the crash site.
According to the Modesto Police Department, McGinnis drove her Honda Accord south on Claus Road at a high speed, passing several cars and ignoring the safety gates and warning lights at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad crossing, about two miles north of the Modesto station.
She entered the crossing at the same time as an Amtrak train, headed south toward the station at 60 mph. The crash tore McGinnis’ Honda in two. The rear portion erupted in flames and spun into a Buick LeSabre, which also caught fire. The Buick’s driver got out, then rescued his wife and father, with the aid of another motorist. The three people in the Buick suffered minor to moderate injuries.
According to the coroner’s report, McGinnis’ husband said his wife had just returned from a weeklong vacation, during which she had traveled on Amtrak. During the trip, she asked to be let off the train when she started having stomach pains; officials refused. “Sharon had been quite upset at Amtrak,” the report stated.
Reached by phone Thursday, McGinnis’ husband did not want to comment on his wife’s death.
McGinnis had had several medical problems over the years, and had a long history of severe depression, according to her physician.
McGinnis had been treated at Memorial Medical Center two days before for a cut wrist, and had talked to a psychiatrist there, according to the report. Her husband told authorities she cut her wrist slicing broccoli with a large knife.
Bee staff writer Michael Mello can be reached at 578-2235 or mmello@modbee.com.