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Locomotive of Wrecked Train Is Recovered : Probe: Bodies of three more crash victims are found after crane pulls engine from mud of bayou. Officials hope to find data recorder intact.

September 25, 1993|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARALAND, Ala. — A salvage crane pulled the front locomotive of the Sunset Limited out of the gray muck of Bayou Canot like a cork from a bottle Friday, and firefighters recovered the mud-entombed bodies of its three-man crew, raising the death toll in the worst train wreck in Amtrak history to 47.

Investigators said they hoped that the locomotive's data recorder had survived the water and viscous mud. Each of the train's three locomotives had a recorder, but Howard Robertson, an Amtrak spokesman, said the lead recorder was the most sophisticated and the most likely to be affected--"the one we don't want to get wet."

The head locomotive of the Sunset Limited hurtled off a trestle across the bayou early Wednesday, flew over the water like a 100-ton spear and plunged nose first into the mud. The other two locomotives and four of the train's eight cars followed it into the water. The train carried 210 people; 163 survived.

Investigators say a barge being pushed by a towboat, lost in a blanket of pre-dawn fog, had struck the trestle moments before. They found that tracks on the trestle were misaligned by 41 inches. The blow from the barge could have caused this bend, they said, and the displacement could have derailed the train.

Weight estimates of the locomotive ranged from 90 tons to 120 tons. That weight, traveling at 70 m.p.h., drove its cab 57 feet into the mud. The back third of the locomotive remained above water, protruding like a big stick. It was charred by fire. A diagonal line showed where the fire had burned down to the water.

Cables from the crane, which is capable of lifting 1,000 tons, were fastened to the rear of the locomotive with choker slings. They tightened like slip knots once the lifting began. As the crane pulled upward, everything below the diagonal line--the bottom two-thirds of the locomotive--rose out of the water.

The crane dangled the locomotive in the air by its end, then lowered it gently onto a barge measuring more than 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The cab of the locomotive was packed with mud. With a hose from a fireboat, rescuers blasted a cavity into the mud so they could enter and start digging for the crew.

Lying on the barge, the front two-thirds of the locomotive also was covered with mud. Workers used the hose to clear away enough to show Amtrak's red, white and blue insignia. The locomotive wheels and their undercarriages stayed behind in the bottom of the bayou. Investigators said they expected to recover them too.

Rescuers and salvagers numbered more than 100, sweltering in 90-degree heat and near-100% humidity. The men worked in teams, using four cranes in all, mounted on barges. Two large tugboats maneuvered the cranes carefully into place around the rest of the wreckage in the water.

"We still have three passenger cars, two locomotives and a lot of bridge debris to get out," said Lt. Bob Foster, the U.S. Coast Guard coordinator, as he watched from a buoy tender. "The operation has been running very smoothly, but it's not an easy task. It took about five hours to get (the locomotive) out of the mud."

Robertson said it would take five more days to complete the operation. He said trains would be running over the trestle again in about two weeks. Meanwhile, he said, a medical examiner would identify the bodies found in the locomotive.

They were the lead engineer, an assistant engineer and a "qualifying engineer," Robertson said. He described the latter as an engineer in training to be at the controls on this particular stretch of track.

Robertson said the lead engineer was believed to have been at the controls during the wreck.

Investigators concentrated on the role of the towboat and its barges. They tried to unravel differences in reports about when the vessels were in the bayou and when the train crossed the trestle. Such differences, said Russ Gober, chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, "are quite common."

Andrew Stabler, 46, operator of the barge, and his three crewmen continued to refer NTSB investigators to their attorneys. The NTSB said it had asked the attorneys for interviews with the men but had gotten no reply. The agency has authority to subpoena the men but said it preferred voluntary statements.

The crew worked for Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., whose general manager, Andrew Harris, issued a written statement Friday saying the towboat and six barges were in the bayou to tie up because of the fog. On Thursday, Harris had said in a written statement that "the vessel found itself" in the bayou during the fog.

The Harris statement on Friday said he could not confirm that a barge had hit the trestle. Federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, have said it was clear that one of the barges struck the trestle. Investigators said paint smears on a bridge pier appeared to match paint scratches on a barge.

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