Seven killed as train derails in S.C. Crash prompts calls for tougher laws

August 01, 1991|By Doug Birch Roger Twigg of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

The derailment of Amtrak's Silver Star in South Carolina yesterday, which killed seven and injured 76, brought fresh demands for Congress to enact tougher rail safety laws and renewed concerns about train passenger safety.

The cause of the crash, Amtrak's worst since 16 people were killed near Chase in 1987, was still being investigated last night. It was the nation's third major train derailment in two weeks and the second major Amtrak crash in eight months.

Dr. Roger A. Horn, the Johns Hopkins University professor who helped found Safe Travel America after his daughter was killed in the 1987 Chase wreck, said that yesterday's accident helped dramatize the need for tougher safety rules, including more extensive drug testing for rail workers and the installation of new fail-safe safety and signal equipment.

"On the average, every 11 days there's a rail crash somewhere in the country in which some tested worker flunks his drug or alcohol test," he said. "So it's not just a theoretical problem. It's obviously something that should be dealt with, needs to be dealt with."

Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, whose House panel is considering the Senate-passed safety bill, predicted that yesterday's derailment would bring the debate on rail safety and drug testing "to a head again" in Congress.

Federal rail officials, meanwhile, pointed out that train travel is still relatively safe. A 1990 study found that trains have about 20 ,, times fewer passenger deaths per mile than highway travel.

"There is no common thread" running through the South Carolina wreck and recent Amtrak accidents in Maryland and Massachusetts, said Marcy Larson, a spokeswoman for Amtrak.

"Amtrak has an extremely excellent safety record," she said, adding that yesterday's passenger deaths were the first for the nation's rail passenger agency since the 1987 Chase crash.

The Silver Star, which was scheduled to arrive in Baltimore at 3:08 p.m., was traveling from Miami to New York with 426 passengers through Camden, S.C., in a heavy rain when the last six cars jumped the tracks about 5 a.m. Those cars hit an empty freight hopper parked on tracks about 10 feet away.

Hospitals treated 76 people, said an Amtrak spokeswoman, Patricia Kelly, with 15 remaining hospitalized late last night. At least five of those were reportedly in critical condition. None of the 20 crew members was hurt.

None of the injured was from Maryland. Amtrak would not release the names of the dead until relatives were notified.

A Baltimore County family, Edmund Reeves, 41, his wife, Yvette, 34, and daughters Letitia, 15, and Natasha, 14, were returning from a cruise and a visit to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. They decided to ride the train to Baltimore because they had never done it before.

"Normally, we don't go by train, but we wanted the experience," Mr. Reeves said last night. He and his family were met at Penn Station, where they were happily embraced by loved ones.

Mr. Reeves, of the 4600 block of Horizon Circle, said he was riding seven or eight cars ahead of the section of the train where people were most severely injured. When the locomotive derailed, he "felt a jerking motion for several minutes, and then the train stopped," he said.

It was only when he left the train that he realized how severe the accident was. "I could see that it had been crushed like an accordion," he said, adding, "I feel very fortunate."

Others closer to the damaged cars described the destruction.

"It was devastating. It was awful," Stephen Clark, a passenger from Philadelphia, told the Associated Press. He said he was thrown onto the tracks, and the person next to him died.

Brent Bahler, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the train was traveling about 79 mph when the accident occurred. The train began to rock and tipped into a line of six freight cars, five of which were empty. The sixth was loaded with wood chips.

The freight cars sliced into the aluminum skin on the left side of the rear passenger coach, toppling seats. The train stopped about 700 feet down the track, its cars leaning slightly, but still coupled together.

Amtrak officials said there was no evidence that the crew, which boarded at Jacksonville, had operated the train improperly or that there were problems with the train. Amtrak estimated damage to its equipment at $2.5 million.

Investigators late yesterday afternoon were examining the switch at an industrial siding that, when activated, allows cars to leave the main line and go onto the siding.

Amtrak set up a number for families to call for information about relatives: 1-800-424-7960.

On Sunday, 14 cars of a 42-car Southern Pacific Transportation Co. train derailed in California, spilling toxic chemicals.

Recent major passenger rail crashes, Dr. Horn said, may not be directly related. But they point out a general need for greater concern about rail safety.

A Rail Safety Corridor Committee, set up after the 1987 Chase wreck, has not met in two years, he said. He is a member of the group.

A 1990 National Safety Council report found that between 1986 and 1988, passenger deaths for railroads averaged .06 per 100,000 miles.

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