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The Nation

6 Killed as Train Derails in Florida

Accident: More than 60 people are injured, many trapped in the wreckage of an Amtrak line carrying 468 passengers and crew on a popular vacation run.

April 19, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — An Amtrak train popular with vacationers to Disney World and other Florida theme parks shot off the tracks Thursday north of Orlando, killing at least six passengers, injuring more than 60 and trapping scores in a jumble of overturned cars, authorities said.

The Virginia-bound train was carrying 468 passengers and crew members, Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said. Fourteen of its 16 passenger cars derailed, seven flipping onto their sides.

Police, firefighters and fellow passengers were atop the overturned cars into the evening, helping those still trapped to get out.

"We just started hurtling and left the track, and the next thing we knew we were bouncing off the walls," said Bernie Morgan, who was traveling from Naples, Fla., to Doylestown, Pa.

David Sheldon, 71, who was traveling with his wife from Boca Raton, Fla., said it took about 30 seconds for the train to come to a halt.

"Suddenly you could feel the brakes scraping," he said. "It seemed like forever."

The derailment occurred at 5:08 p.m. EDT in wooded terrain near Crescent City in Putnam County, about 60 miles north of Orlando, according to Amtrak.

Train No. 52, commonly known as the Auto Train, carries passengers and their cars, vans and motorcycles between the Orlando suburb of Sanford and Lorton, Va., outside Washington.

The only one of its kind in the United States, the train is a popular means of transportation for families visiting central Florida's tourist attractions and Atlantic beaches, and for snowbirds from the Northeast who spend the winter in Florida.

Television news helicopters showed the gleaming silver cars, some of which came to rest at right angles to the tracks. Though many passengers took part in the rescue effort, others sat quietly, perhaps in shock, atop the overturned cars.

"In 30 years of law enforcement, I've never seen anything like this. It's like Matchbox cars; they're just thrown around," Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson told reporters after surveying the wreckage.

Putnam County authorities sent every available emergency vehicle to the accident scene, and law enforcement agencies from elsewhere in north-central Florida contributed helicopters, fire engines and ambulances.

About 75 people were trapped at one point in one of the overturned cars, said Chris Doyle of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Rescue workers used ladders to scale the derailed cars and hoisted up backboards to carry the injured.

People heard screams for help coming from inside, according to local reports. Rescue workers painted orange Cs--short for "cleared"--on the derailed cars after they were cleared of people.

School buses were pressed into service to carry passengers away.

By Thursday evening, Lt. Bill Leeper, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said at least six people were confirmed dead. More than 60 people suffered injuries of various degrees, including a person who was taken by helicopter to a Gainesville hospital and was listed in critical condition.

In Washington, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Greg Martin said the agency was sending investigators to the scene. There was no immediate word as to the cause of the derailment, but in a television interview, former NTSB Chairman Jim Burnett said a spell of hot weather might have warped the rails.

The tracks are owned and maintained by CSX Corp., and a spokeswoman for the company said they had been inspected about eight hours before the derailment and found to be in good condition.

The Auto Train had two engines, 16 passenger cars and 23 automobile transport cars. Preliminary reports indicated that seven of the transport cars also derailed, though they remained upright, Black said.

According to Amtrak, the Auto Train is one of its most popular and successful services, and it carried 234,000 passengers in 2000. This year, a congressionally created panel reported that Amtrak, the nation's passenger rail line organized with public and private ownership, made money in 2000 only in the Northeast and on the Auto Train's 855-mile route.

Ironically, Amtrak took over the Auto Train in 1983 when a private operator could not recover financially from a derailment. Amtrak began with three-times-a-week service, then started daily service the next year. Each day at 4 p.m., one Auto Train starts out from each direction on the 16-hour overnight journey.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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