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Amtrak engineer says he braked for misaligned tracks

| Saturday, April 20, 2002

CRESCENT CITY, Fla. — The engineer of the Amtrak train that crashed near this hamlet told investigators he threw on the emergency brakes just before the deadly derailment because he saw misaligned tracks ahead, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.

More than half of the Auto Train's 40 cars skidded off the tracks Thursday. Four people were killed and more than 150 injured.

George Black of the NTSB said investigators have not yet determined what caused the train to hurtle off the tracks. He said investigators still were trying to confirm whether the track was out of alignment.

The tracks had been visually inspected eight hours before the crash and had been in good condition, according to CSX, the freight railroad that owns the track.

It is not uncommon for rails to expand in the Florida heat, but Black said the temperature — 81 degrees — did not appear to be a factor. Misalignments also can be caused by damage done by a previous train.

Black said four other trains had passed over the area just before the wreck, apparently without trouble. He said investigators examined two of those trains for signs of damage from bad track and found no problems.

Amtrak spokeswoman Cheryl Jackson said sabotage was not suspected.

The engineer, who was not hurt, was tested for drugs, a routine step after an accident. The results were not immediately disclosed. The engineer's name and background were not released.

The train, which carries both passengers and cars and is a favorite among tourists traveling between Washington and Orlando's theme parks, was going 56 mph in a 60 mph zone when the accident happened, Black said.

The death toll was reported at six Thursday but was revised yesterday by investigators and medical officials. In all, 166 passengers were taken to hospitals. Twelve remained hospitalized, including a 73-year-old woman in critical condition.

Sharon Mahoney, the 52-year-old general manager of the Auto Train service, was on the train at the time. She was not injured and helped direct the rescue efforts, according to Amtrak.

Mahoney was riding in the first passenger car, a sleeper that did not leave the tracks. "I was just thrown about in my chair. We trembled for about 60 seconds. I could hear the squeal of the brakes," she said.

When passengers and crew were taken to a high school, she rode the bus with them. "I needed to be there with our guests and crew," she said.

The Auto Train was bound for Washington with 418 passengers and 34 crew members, as well as 200 automobiles stacked in 23 specially designed cars.

The accident happened about an hour into the trip. The two engines and first two cars stayed on the track, but 14 of the 16 passenger cars and seven others derailed in the remote, heavily wooded area 60 miles north of Orlando.

There were selfless acts of heroism as those aboard helped each other escape the overturned cars. Amtrak chef Harry Gissendanner was credited with helping passengers out of the dining car despite burns on his hands and legs.

Using ladders to reach the overturned cars, rescuers helped survivors out of the train and reached through shattered windows to get to those still trapped inside.

James Pierce had just settled into his sleeper car for a 16.5-hour journey to Washington when the train screeched off the rails and slammed into pine trees lining the tracks.

"It felt like it was sliding to the left and suddenly it just toppled," said Pierce, an Amtrak attendant from Huntingtown, Md.

Pierce said he grabbed the sleeper car's curtains and within seconds he found himself hanging in the air. After the train came to a stop, Pierce said, he removed the emergency window and began pulling people out.

As NTSB investigators did their work, a switching engine began the arduous process of clearing the busy track, moving a half-dozen upright train cars away from the wreckage. Amtrak also worked to get passengers to their destinations by other means of transportation.

It was the Amtrak's deadliest crash since March 15, 1999, when a train collided with a truck and derailed near Bourbonnais, Ill., killing 13 people and injuring more than 100.

The derailment is the first Auto Train accident since 1998, when a train hit an empty car at a crossing in the Virginia town of Jarratt. There were no injuries.

The Auto Train service carried 234,000 passengers in 2000, according to Amtrak, making it one of the most popular and successful routes of the nation's passenger rail line.

The Amtrak Reform Council, a body created by Congress, reported this year that Amtrak made money in 2000 only on the Auto Train and on rail lines in the Northeast.

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