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Blow by Barge in Fog Is Suspected in Train Crash

September 24, 1993|ERIC MALNIC and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SARALAND, Ala. — Officials concluded Thursday that a barge, being pushed by a towboat lost in fog on an Alabama bayou, smacked into a railroad trestle and knocked concrete out of an abutment minutes before the Amtrak Sunset Limited roared across and plunged off, killing 44 people.

Investigators said they found that tracks on the trestle had been displaced by 41 inches in the direction the towboat was traveling. Capt. Michael Perkins of the U.S. Coast Guard said that the blow from the barge could have caused this misalignment--and derailed the train.

A call radioed by the towboat operator after the wreck, taped by the Coast Guard and obtained by The Times, shows that the operator cried out: "Mayday! Mayday! I've lost my (barge). There's too much fog. I don't know my exact location." Moments later, the operator added: "There's a train just ran off the track. There's a lot of people in the water.

"There's a fire. We need help. Get out here!"

The barge, being pushed by the towboat early Wednesday through a pre-dawn fog, clearly had crashed into the trestle abutment, officials said. "The barge did hit the bridge," declared U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. The FBI said criminal charges against the towboat operator are "a possibility"--but a prosecutor said it was too early to decide.

As rescuers resumed their search Thursday for more victims, they found the body of a girl who appeared to be about 5 years old floating in the bayou. Authorities offered differing casualty figures. But they agreed on a death toll of at least 44 and said three persons were still missing and presumed dead.

The train carried 189 ticketed passengers, 18 crew members and three infants who did not require tickets.

It was Amtrak's worst train wreck. The final toll could exceed the cumulative total of 48 people killed in all crashes in Amtrak history. Seven victims remained hospitalized, five in guarded condition. Most of the dead were found in train cars, but rescuers said the three missing people were believed to be crew members in the cab of the lead locomotive.

Rescuers maneuvered barge cranes into place to stabilize the cars in the bayou before divers crawled inside. They lifted a coach car out of the water and placed it on a barge. Lifting the lead locomotive, 69 feet long, could take days. Two thirds of it--including its nose, which carried a data recorder--is buried in 25 feet of water and 15 feet of silt.

The wreck was being investigated by the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Coast Guard and the police department in Mobile, 10 miles south of the accident scene.

Investigators described what happened this way:

The Mobile River flows past the city of Mobile. Towboat operator Andrew Stabler, who has been licensed for one year, was pushing three barges and pulling three others north, up the river. The barges were lashed three abreast and loaded with coal, coke and wood chips. He turned slightly left to go around 12 Mile Island, a heart-shaped spit of land north of the city.

Once he passed the island, instead of returning to his northward course, which would have taken him under 14 Mile Bridge, he continued left in the fog and unwittingly veered into Bayou Canot. At 3:06 a.m., he called the Coast Guard by radio telephone from his vessel, the MV Mauvilla, to say that he was lost.

"Mayday! Mayday!" Stabler says on a tape, made by the Coast Guard, which routinely records such calls. "I've lost my tow," he says, referring to one of the barges he was pushing. "There's too much fog. I don't know my exact location. It's just around 12 Mile Island, around the cut . . . "

The Coast Guard asks whether he needs assistance.

"Negative," Stabler replies. "I don't know what happened. I just saw the heel of the barge disappear. . . ."

Capt. Perkins of the Coast Guard said Thursday in an interview: "That's when we think he hit the bridge."

The tape shows that Stabler thought he was under 14 Mile Bridge, two miles farther north on the Mobile River--when in fact he was under the railroad trestle over Bayou Canot.

"We're just under 14 Mile Bridge," Stabler says. He pauses, then adds: "I don't have time to talk. I'll get back."

He pauses again. "It's real bad here. There's a train just ran off the track."

Another pause.

"There's a train in the water. There's a lot of people in the water. There's a fire. We need help. Get out here!"

At 2:47 a.m., the train had passed the last signal along the tracks before the bridge. It was running 33 minutes late because of air-conditioning repairs in New Orleans. Had it not needed those repairs, investigators said, it might have crossed Bayou Canot before the barge hit the trestle.

The train, going 70 m.p.h., the speed limit, tried to make an emergency stop, said John Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. Immediately afterward, at 2:48 a.m., he said, the conductor "gave a Mayday signal."

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