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Amtrak Train Derails in Bayou, Killing 44 : Disaster: Sunset Limited from L.A. plunges off bridge in Alabama. A barge may have rammed into trestle.

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 an aging trestle early Wednesday and plunged like a steel stone into a foggy Alabama bayou, killing 44 and leaving at least three others trapped in wreckage that sank into an ink-black swamp 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 at 2:47 a.m. local time, screamed and scrambled through the wreckage. Several rescued others, including a 3-year-old boy.

The FBI said a tugboat pushing six barges loaded with concrete and coal might have rammed and weakened the trestle shortly before the Sunset Limited arrived. "One of those barges has a big dent in it," said special agent Chuck Archer in Mobile, Ala. He said concrete had been broken away from the foundation of the trestle and that pieces of concrete were found on the barge.

Amtrak said it was the worst train wreck in its history. The 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 fatalities. Authorities said they did not expect to complete a list of the dead before today. They said most of the victims were found inside the train cars. Five of the injured were hospitalized in critical condition.

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 a crew of 17. It left Los Angeles on Sunday, changed crews in New Orleans and headed toward Alabama. Shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday, it approached the trestle over Bayou Canot 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 almost everyone, Mike Dopheide, 26, of Omaha, Neb., 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. But he saw 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. The nose of the 80-foot lead locomotive was buried in bayou silt. Its crew members were still inside. A lounge car, a dining car, a sleeping car and a coach car were standing 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 of light 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 survivors onto the boats.

Others climbed out of the train. They grabbed wooden debris to stay afloat until more help arrived. Dopheide was suddenly aware of the silence.

"Most people weren't saying anything to me because they were too frightened to talk," he said. "They were just holding onto debris or to each other. One lady was holding onto someone's belt."

Before long, the fire spread along the trestle and drew closer to wrecked cars.

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