Crash revives grim memories for Chase Mishap occurred near '87 collision site

April 13, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien

When he heard metal crunching metal outside his front door, Gary Fischer turned away from his television to peer out his living room window and across the dimly lit street to the train tracks beyond.

What he saw was the bright blue and red stripes of an Amtrak engine toppled on its side.

What he felt was a flood of grim memories.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, it's happened again,' " said Mr. Fischer. His home is among the closest of many in this tightly knit community that lies near the train tracks in Chase, in northeast Baltimore County, just south of the Gunpowder River where yesterday's crash occurred within 100 yards of a 1987 train collision that killed 16 people and injured more than 170.

As he grabbed a pocket-sized flashlight from under his kitchen sink, Mr. Fischer's thoughts went back to that January afternoon four years ago, when ambulances were backed up 10 deep on his narrow two-lane street and injured passengers had to be carried and helped like wounded soldiers into his house and back yard, where they were treated.

"The first thing I said was, 'It's another damn train wreck,' " Mr. Fischer recalled yesterday.

Flashlight in hand, he sprinted across Twin River Beach Road to the chain-link fence and gate that separate the tracks from the community.

He pushed on the padlocked chain, but at first it refused to give.

Frantic, he pulled the slack out of the chain and using the power of his 6-foot, 5-inch frame, he kicked at the chain and broke it apart.

Once on the tracks, he noticed a small fire coming from the Amtrak's engine as he began surveying the pitch-black scene for survivors. But before he found any people, he heard the approach of other trains, including an Amtrak train to the north that blew its whistle as it headed south toward him, he said.

"I started yelling for my sister-in-law and my wife to call 911 and stop those other damn trains," he said.

Mr. Fischer, 36, found the Amtrak train's conductor, Ronald Edward Hairston, lying on the tracks, searching in the dark for the hand-held radio he had taken with him when he had jumped off the train moments before the crash.

"I asked him, 'Are you all right?, and he said, 'I'm hurt, I'm not OK,' " Mr. Fischer said.

The conductor was reluctant to leave the scene, insisting on searching for his radio -- a minutelong probe that involved groping around on hands and knees.

"When he found his radio he kept saying into it, 'Emergency, emergency, Amtrak emergency,' " Mr. Fischer said.

By this time, Mr. Fischer's wife, Kathi Fischer, and his sister-in-law, Peggy Ferguson, had come on to the tracks to search for other survivors, calling out to the darkness as they combed the tracks with flashlights.

"We didn't know whether it was a passenger train, how many peoplewere injured or what it was, it was so dark out," said Mrs. Fischer, who had dialed 911 before coming out to search.

The group quickly found the train's engineer, Ray Francis Hunsberger, who had also jumped from the train moments before the crash.

The Fischers and their neighbors took both of the injured men to the Fischer house, where they were eased into chairs at the family's dining room table.

Mrs. Fischer applied a water-soaked towel to Mr. Hairston's head to relieve the pain of a bruise he suffered in the jump.

But other than that, both turned down offers of water, food and various forms of first aid by the Fischers and half-dozen neighbors who had filed into the house yesterday morning to help.

Neighbors said the two men remained too dazed to offer details of what happened, but repeatedly asked questions about the status of the diesel locomotive and three electric locomotives that they had been taking from Washington to Philadelphia. "The Amtrak engineer kept asking, 'How's my train? How's my train?' " said Sue Zack, a neighbor who was awakened by the crash. "They were told, 'Forget it. Your train is a piece of junk.' "

At the scene yesterday afternoon, neighbors gathered in small groups to watch Amtrak crews using cranes to lift the derailed locomotives back onto the track. The only sign of injuries was the few drops of blood that stained the concrete path and front step of the Fischer house.

Yesterday's crash occurred at the same spot where a string of Conrail locomotives went through a switch and entered the path of a high-speed Amtrak train Jan. 4, 1987.

That accident, Amtrak's single worst mishap, killed 16 and injured more than 170.

Amtrak and federal railway officials said yesterday that it was a coincidence both accidents occurred in the same location, about 100 yards from the community of tidy, modest houses that was acclaimed for the way it helped the injured in the 1987 crash. But neighbors said yesterday they are skeptical that both accidents could have occurred so closely together out of coincidence.

"I can't believe it happened here twice, twice yet," said Mrs. Zack, the mother of two children who has lived a stone's throw from the tracks for 45 years.

A metal plaque attached to the side of the nearby Harewood Food Market serves as the lone reminder of the earlier accident. The plaque, put up by the Baltimore County Republicans, acknowledges the community for its "heroic response to the Amtrak disaster of Jan. 4, 1987."

Patricia Matney, 28, whose house shakes when freight trains rumble by, said that most people in the community have learned to live with the trains as neighbors. But she said yesterday's accident has her wondering about the safety of the tracks nearby.

"You learn to live with the trains day after day," she said. "Most people thought that after what happened back in '87, that things were safe. It just shows you how wrong you can be."

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