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Braking Cited in Amtrak Crash

Accident: Engineer said he saw buckled area and tried to stop. The NTSB said four other trains had just passed over the same tracks without incident.

April 20, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CRESCENT CITY, Fla. — The engineer aboard the popular Amtrak Auto Train that crashed in this stretch of verdant Florida countryside told investigators Friday that the train derailed after he spied what he thought was deformed track and pulled the emergency brake.

The reasons why sudden braking might have caused more than half the train's 40 cars to skid off the rails Thursday remained unclear, however. Federal officials said the train was traveling at 56 mph, under the 60-mph limit in effect on that stretch of track.

Two men and two women died in the accident, including a married couple; their identities were not released. Of the 166 people sent to hospitals throughout North Florida, 12 remained hospitalized Friday, including a member of the crew.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Russ Quimby said the engineer, whose name was not released, reported he had seen "a heat kink," a buckling of the rails that can be caused by high temperatures. But CSX Transportation, which owns and maintains the tracks here, told federal officials the temperature was 81 degrees at the time of the accident, hardly torrid by Florida standards.

Also, NTSB officials said that just before the wreck, four other trains passed without reported incident over the same tracks south of Crescent City, including a coal train that preceded the Auto Train by no more than eight minutes.

The engineer "saw some kind of track irregularity to which he reacted with the emergency brakes," said NTSB member George Black, who arrived to oversee the investigation. "We will examine essentially every inch of the rail that is in this area."

Amtrak's Auto Train is unique in the rail service, transporting people along with their vehicles. Thursday's train carried 202 vehicles on 24 auto transport cars. Black said the investigation would consider whether that much weight concentrated at the end of the 4,000-foot-long train, which Amtrak calls the world's longest, might have been a factor.

The Auto Train, which was bound for Lorton, Va., outside Washington, jackknifed about an hour after leaving Sanford, Fla.

On Thursday evening, the Florida Highway Patrol reported six fatalities, but Amtrak Vice President Cheryle Robinson Jackson said law enforcement authorities apparently miscounted in the confusion.

The Auto Train carried 418 passengers, including some children, and 34 crew members, according to an Amtrak manifest.

Black said Friday that three of the victims apparently were hurled from the train as 14 of the 16 passenger cars left the tracks. Some of the cars toppled onto their sides or plunged into the ditch alongside the rail line.

Police, sheriff's officers and fire rescue teams from many counties of North and Central Florida responded to the accident, Amtrak's deadliest in more than three years.

Recordings of 911 cell phone calls from people inside the wrecked train were released Friday, giving an indication of their harrowing ordeal. Some passengers were trapped for as long as an hour.

"Our car is completely flipped over. We saw a car completely pinned between two other cars. I see cars toppled like Tinker Toys," one caller said.

"The car I was in, there was a man with his head split open," another caller said. "There were a couple of elderly people pinned under their seats."

During one call, a woman begins yelling, "911 says help is on its way! Spread the word!"

According to Amtrak officials, a chef in the Auto Train's dining car sustained serious burns on his arms and legs when he was thrown against a hot grill, but he ignored his injuries to help other people escape. Local media identified him as Harry Gissendanner and said he had been admitted to a Daytona Beach hospital.

One injured passenger, a 73-year-old woman, was reported in critical condition at the University of Florida's Shands Hospital in Gainesville.

More than 150 of the cars being transported on the train were taken Friday to the Sanford train station, where passengers are reclaiming them. Seven of the transport cars derailed, but the extent of any damage to the vehicles inside was unclear.

As federal regulations mandate, the Auto Train's engineer and other crew members were given blood and urine tests to determine whether they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Black said the results would be available after the samples are examined at a Federal Aviation Administration laboratory in Oklahoma City.

An FBI agent also was involved in the investigation, but Black said foul play was not suspected.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Amtrak, the nation's passenger rail line, has taken various steps to increase the security of its operations, including hiring more inspectors to check stations and tracks.

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