Amtrak says tests clear rail crews of abuse of drugs Conrail, Amtrak find workers on coal train blameless in crash

April 17, 1991|By Doug Birch

An Amtrak spokesman confirmed yesterday that tests on urine samples provided by the crews of both trains that collided Friday near Chase produced no evidence of alcohol or drug abuse.

Spokesmen for both Amtrak and Conrail also said that as far as their organizations were concerned, the four Conrail crewmen who were operating the 125-car coal train when it was struck in the middle by a string of four Amtrak locomotives at 3:09 a.m. Friday had been cleared of any culpability in the accident.

The Evening Sun reported yesterday that Amtrak had conducted its own analysis of urine samples in advance of the Federal Railroad Administration's official toxicologic tests on both urine and blood samples. Results of the railroad agency's tests are not expected to be completed for several days.

The main investigation into the crash is being conducted by a team from the National Transportation Safety Board. A spokesman said yesterday that the board was gathering evidence and had reached no conclusions.

R. Clifford Black IV, an Amtrak spokesman, said yesterday that the tests were normally done to help speed the return to work of employees involved in accidents. He said the tests essentially cleared the Conrail crew of any wrongdoing. "There was nothing to indicate by any of the circumstances that they were in any way involved in this accident," he said.

Robert Libkind, a spokesman for Conrail, said the freight crew continued to work its regular schedule this week after the crash. "We took no disciplinary action because there was no need to," he said. "It was obvious from very early on that they were not at fault."

The National Transportation Safety Board said late Friday that the northbound Amtrak train -- a diesel locomotive towing three non-operating electric locomotives -- tried but failed to brake when a red signal indicated that the Conrail train was passing through the switch ahead of it. Investigators said an examination of the electric locomotives showed that their air brakes were not properly hooked up to the diesel's.

The two Amtrak crewmen, an engineer and conductor, were injured when they leaped from the leading locomotive seconds before it hit the 64th car in the coal train at a switch a few hundred yards south of the Gunpowder River.

The accident occurred about 100 yards from the site of the deadly 1987 collision between a speeding Amtrak passenger train and a Conrail freight train. That crash killed 16 passengers and crew and injured 175 others. It was later found that the crew of the Conrail train had been smoking marijuana shortly before the crash.

The engineer of the Amtrak train involved in Friday's crash, Ray Francis Hunsberger, 38, of Glenolden, Pa., was released from the Maryland Shock Trauma Center Saturday and is on medical leave, Mr. Black said. The conductor, Ronald Edward Hairston, 48, of Collegeville, Pa., remained at the center yesterday in fair condition.

Mr. Black said that even if both Amtrak crewmen were fully recovered, neither would be permitted to return to work pending a further investigation by Amtrak.

Dan Collins, assistant general secretary of the United Transportation Union, said any suggestion that the Amtrak crew was at fault was unfair, given the evidence so far, as was any comparison of this crash to the Chase accident four years ago -- the worst in Amtrak's history.

"Let's be fair with this one," said Mr. Collins, whose union represents Mr. Hairston. "These people were not responsible just because there was a mechanical failure. They should be absolved . . . under the circumstances."

Safety board investigators have said they are focusing on how the four locomotives, which were traveling from Washington's Ivy City Yards to Philadelphia, were prepared for the journey by maintenance workers.

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