Fatal wreck occurred almost at same place.


April 12, 1991|By Joe Nawrozki and Bruce Reid | Joe Nawrozki and Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff Richard Irwin and Robert Hilson Jr. contributed to this story.

Two crewmen were injured today when their string of four Amtrak railroad locomotives collided with a coal-hauling Conrail freight train near Chase, the scene four years ago of another train wreck in which 16 people died and more than 170 were injured.

Today's injured were flown by State Police helicopter to the Shock-Trauma Unit in Baltimore. A spokeswoman there identified them as Raymond F. Hunsberger, 38, of Glen Olden, Pa., in fair and stable condition, and Ronald E. Hairston, 48, of Collegeville, Pa., in serious but stable condition with a head injury and a jaw fracture.

Earlier, the spokeswoman had interchanged the medical conditions of the two men.

Baltimore County police identified Hunsberger as the engineer and Hairston as the conductor of the four Amtrak engines.

Today's crash occurred at almost the identical spot where a string of Conrail locomotives in January 1987 went through a switch and into the path of the high-speed Amtrak "Colonial" passenger train, in what was the Amtrak line's single worst accident.

"I can't believe this can happen again," said a stunned Cathi Fischer, who lives about 100 yards from the accident scene on Twin River Beach Road near the rail bridge over the Gunpowder River.

"There is something seriously wrong with that track," she said. Her husband, Gary, was awakened about 3:10 a.m. by a loud bang and screeching. She said her husband and her sister, Peggy Ferguson, rushed onto the tracks from the Fischer home and helped the two Amtrak crewmen, who had leaped from the train seconds before the crash.

Two of the Amtrak engines, weighing a total of 600,000 pounds, were derailed in the collision. Two of the coal cars also were knocked off the tracks and five other Conrail cars were heavily damaged.

"Don't you think somebody ought to do something?" said Gary Fischer. "Should we expect this every four years?"

All three Chase residents said they helped rescue the injured in the 1987 accident. Cathi Fischer stood next to the railroad tracks today and said, "Another wreck, another wreck."

"I always worry that these trains will carry chemicals on them and wreck," said Darlene Piercy, 45, a neighbor. "If they don't straighten out these tracks now, something terrible is going to happen."

"There seems to be a problem with the signal," said Sgt. Stephen Doarnberger, county police spokesman. "The Amtrak train was supposed to have a red signal and stop until the Conrail train passed.

"We're going to treat it like a crime scene to make sure a crime didn't take place."

However, Amtrak spokesman Patrick Jeffery would not say which train had the right of way or if there were any signal malfunctions.

Police and railroad officials said the northbound Amtrak train struck the southbound Conrail train as the freight was switching its four locomotives and 140 coal cars to a side track. The Conrail train was struck at about midpoint, according to the Amtrak spokesman.

"It was a very unusual coincidence," Jeffery said. "Very bizarre."

Another Amtrak official, Sue Martin, said that "as far as we know, the signal was working and the trains were not exceeding the 80 mph speed limit."

She said the Amtrak locomotives were equipped with an automatic braking system that applies the brakes if the engine goes past a stop signal. But Martin said there was no indication if the system was activated.

Alan Pollock, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said an eight-member investigative team from his agency was on the scene. He said the board requested blood and urine samples from crewmen on both trains and others connected with the train, such as the dispatcher.

In the 1987 accident, Conrail engineer Ricky L. Gates and his brakeman, Edward W. Cromwell, admitted they had been smoking marijuana on the train shortly before the crash and had missed several stop signals.

Besides the NTSB, Jeffery said, the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak and Conrail are conducting investigations of today's accident.

Pollock said that "event recorders" -- devices that indicate the speeds of the trains at the time of the accident -- were removed and will be analyzed.

The collision blocked all three tracks that link Washington with Baltimore and points north, an Amtrak spokeswoman said. She said workers would need at least until midafternoon to clear at least one of the tracks.

The other lines were expected to be ready to handle rail traffic by this evening, she said.

Amtrak was transporting its passengers by bus between Baltimore and Wilmington, Del.

At least 5,000 passengers northbound from Baltimore were affected, said Robert Brooks, an Amtrak safety engineer. Both charter and Mass Transit Administration buses were brought in to take the passengers to Wilmington.

Morning rush-hour train traffic between Baltimore and Washington apparently was not disrupted. Commuter trains from Baltimore to Washington leave both Pennsylvania Station on Charles Street and Camden Station near the site of the new baseball stadium.

In the crash, county police said, the leading Amtrak engine derailed and a fire broke out when fuel oil spilled onto the %J ground. That fire, along with one that occurred in overhead electric wires, quickly was extinguished, police said.

Not knowing how serious the collision was or how many people may have been injured, the county Fire Department sent eight ambulances to the scene plus nearly a dozen pieces of firefighting equipment and a hazardous materials unit.

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