Train hits gas tanker six killed 'Tower of fire' engulfs motorists in Florida

March 18, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- An Amtrak passenger train knifed through a fully loaded gasoline tanker in Fort Lauderdale yesterday afternoon, killing at least six people in a flash of exploding fuel as they waited in their cars at a busy intersection.

None of the 138 passengers and crew members aboard the southbound Silver Star train en route to Miami from New York were seriously injured when it cannonballed into a Hess gasoline tanker loaded with 5,000 gallons of fuel at Cypress Creek Road near Interstate 95.

At least 12 people were being treated for minor injuries at Holy Cross, Humana Cypress and North Ridge Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale last night.

But the driver of the truck and at least five motorists waiting in their cars for the train to pass shortly after 3 p.m. were incinerated in a lake of fire as the tanker split in front of them.

"I saw them," said Ernie Gorwood, 30, a soot-covered off-duty Broward County firefighter who arrived first on the scene. "There was nothing anybody could do about it. There was no way anybody could get out."

The train and the burned cars -- many of which melted as temperatures approached 2,000 degrees -- will remain in place for up to a week while investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board pick through the scene for clues to the cause of the crash.

The asphalt roadway also melted in the fire, forcing the closing of the intersection indefinitely.

Witnesses said that the automatic crossing gates at the tracks had been malfunctioning for a week and that the engineer signaled his approach just seconds before the collision. The maximum speed on the track is 60 miles per hour, a railroad spokesman said.

But Broward sheriff's Lt. Lee Kellogg, who watched the crash from his patrol car, said the driver of the tanker tried to get through the intersection as the gates came down on top of it. The truck then broke through the barrier -- a second too late.

"I figured he made it through," Lieutenant Kellogg said. "Then I saw the train."

The locomotive, towing 10 cars, slammed into the truck and pushed it down the tracks as fuel engulfed Cypress Creek Road and a 30-foot column of flame erupted into the sky.

"It was a tower of fire," said Ron Anentz, a 52-year-old vacationing construction worker from Racine, Wis., who watched the accident unfold from his fifth-floor balcony at the Crown Sterling Suites.

Guests of the 254-room hotel less than 100 yards from the tracks were evacuated within minutes. They were allowed to return to their rooms yesterday evening.

Miraculously, the train came to a stop with only its empty dining car in the middle of the blazing intersection. That car burned down to its steel bed in a matter of minutes while dozens of passengers scrambled to safety farther down the tracks.

Passengers complained repeatedly that conductors ordered them to stay in their seats, shoved them away from open doors, then disappeared themselves as smoke roiled past their windows.

"The goddamn train is on fire!" James Mullins, 21, of North Carolina, yelled to his fellow passengers as he poked his head out a door to see flames engulfing the dining car ahead of them.

"The attendant comes up, shoves me out of the way and yells, 'Sit down!'" Mr. Mullins said. "Then he jumps out the door and slams it behind him. We waited a couple more minutes. But when he didn't come back, we all bailed out."

Tanya Williams, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, said a conductor shoved her back into her seat with her infant daughter in her arms, then disappeared through a side door.

"I never saw that guy again," she said. "Their job description is to make sure everybody is safe, and all he did was bad-mouth us and get himself out of danger. What about us?"

The Broward County medical examiner, Dr. Ronald Wright, was able to account for six adult victims in the intersection, including three in a minivan and one man at the wheel of what police believe was a maroon Buick sedan. Along with the minivan, at least two pickup trucks and six cars were scorched beyond recognition.

Police say it may be days before the victims can be identified through dental records and jewelry.

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