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Amtrak Train Derails in Bayou, Killing 43 : Disaster: Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Miami plunges off Alabama bridge, trapping passengers.

September 23, 1993|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY and ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SARALAND, Ala. — The Amtrak Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Miami with 206 people aboard hurtled off its tracks on an aging trestle early Wednesday and plunged like a steel stone into a foggy Alabama bayou, killing 43 and trapping as many as 10 others in a passenger car that sank into ink-black swamp water crawling with snakes and alligators.

A locomotive erupted into flames, burning its crew. Fire spread to the wood-and-steel trestle. One of the coach cars hung over the edge of the 84-year-old structure, but did not fall. Riders, many of them asleep when the train derailed just after 3 a.m. local time, screamed and scrambled through the wreckage. Several rescued others, including a 3-year-old boy.

Amtrak said it was the worst train wreck in its history. Its toll could eclipse the cumulative total of 48 people killed in all crashes on Amtrak since it was created 23 years ago to run the nation's long-distance passenger trains. Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom, who flew over the bayou as smoke and steam rose from the wreckage, said, "It was the most terrible sight I have ever witnessed."

About 40 people on the train when it crashed had boarded in Los Angeles, an Amtrak official said. There was no immediate word on whether any of them were among the dead.

The National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation into the cause of the wreck. It was joined by the FBI, although an agency spokesman said there was no immediate indication of sabotage.

Tracks where the wreck happened are owned by CSX Transportation Inc., an Eastern railroad company. Last week the NTSB blamed poor track maintenance by CSX for an Amtrak crash that killed eight people two years ago in South Carolina. Hours after the crash, the mayor of Mobile, Ala., said he had received a report that a barge hit the trestle before the train crossed.

"We don't have any clue as to what might have caused the accident," said Dick Bussard, a spokesman for CSX, formerly the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. CSX operates its own trains over its tracks in 20 states east of the Mississippi River. Bussard said the company inspected the tracks visually on Sunday and that Amtrak checked them and the trestle with a laser on Sept. 9.

The Sunset Limited, which became a coast-to-coast train five months ago by extending the eastern end of its run from New Orleans to Miami, carried 189 passengers and 17 crew members. It left Los Angeles on Sunday, changed crews in New Orleans and headed east toward Mobile. Shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday, it approached the trestle over Canot Bayou about 10 miles north of Mobile.

An hour earlier, a 132-car CSX freight train with three locomotives had crossed the trestle without mishap.

The trestle speed limit for passenger trains is 70 m.p.h. It was not known how fast the Sunset Limited was rolling. Like most everyone, Mike Dopheide, 26, was asleep. He had gotten on in Los Angeles after visiting his sister in Highland Park. "Suddenly I was bumped on the floor, and you could hear the brakes squealing," he said afterward. "I knew then that we had derailed."

It was dark. Flames spread from one of the three locomotives, Dopheide said, and people around him could not find emergency exits. He said his car began filling with water and smoke.

"Oh, my God!" a woman shouted. "We're going to die."

Dopheide finally found a door and tried to open it. It would not budge. Then he noticed a piece of timber. It had smashed through a window, he said, and was keeping the car from submerging completely. Moreover, he noticed that it offered a way to escape. He climbed through the window and out onto the timber.

He saw four Amtrak crew members standing on the roof of one of the locomotives.

"Did you radio for help?" Dopheide shouted.

"No," one of them replied. "There's no radios."

Around him Dopheide saw a tragedy. All three locomotives and four of the eight cars on the train were off the bridge and in the bayou. One of the cars was for baggage, another was a dormitory car for the crew. The other two were passenger coaches.

The water was 25 feet deep. One of the coach cars was covered completely. "We presume," said Jacobsen, the Amtrak spokesman, "that those passengers drowned." The nose of the 80-foot lead locomotive was buried in bayou silt. There were three crew members inside. A lounge car, a dining car, a sleeping car and a coach car were still on the trestle.

A third of the coach car hung over the edge.

In the glow from the burning locomotive, survivors--joined by rescuers in helicopters and nearby residents in boats--tried to save as many people as possible. Several of the passengers were elderly. Dopheide helped eight of them through the timber-shattered window.

A tugboat appeared, shining a high-intensity beam on the wreckage. The tug inched its way to the side of the railroad cars, but it pushed too much debris against them to get close. It backed away and sent in two flat-bottomed skiffs.

Dopheide helped his eight charges onto the boats.

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