Officials suspect barge knocked down bridge in fatal Amtrak train crash

September 23, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MOBILE, Ala. -- Federal officials suspect that a barge knocked into a bridge here and caused an Amtrak train to tumble into a murky bayou yesterday, killing more than 40 passengers in one of the worst U.S. rail calamities of the century.

As the train, carrying 206 people, crossed the bridge, the center section gave way, sending slumbering passengers hurtling into the swamp.

"It looked like a version of Dante's 'Inferno,' with the heads bobbing around in the dark and the flames," said Julie Dicks of Lake City, Fla., whose son pulled her from the train.

John Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation

Safety Board, said last night: "We have physical evidence that a pier of this bridge was struck. The physical evidence seems to indicate the scrape marks on the bridge and the scrape marks on the barge match up."

The metal of the barge was bent in a way that corresponded to the contour of the concrete pier, he said.

The bridge, built in 1909, spans the Big Bayou Canot, a sector of the watery labyrinth of the Mobile River delta that is supposed to be off-limits to barges. But yesterday morning, a flotilla of six barges was parked on the bayou. One had a dent still fresh with a white, powdery smear. FBI agents questioned the crew from a nearby tug.

Rescue workers recovered 41 bodies from the treacherous currents of the bayou. Six people were unaccounted for. The death toll made it Amtrak's darkest day.

"It's conceivable today's catastrophic accident could eclipse the number of fatalities for our entire 22-year history," said Clifford Black, an Amtrak spokesman. He said 48 people had died in all the Amtrak crashes before yesterday, including 16 killed in the worst previous crash, in 1987 in Chase, Baltimore County.

Charles Archer, special agent in charge of the Mobile office of the FBI, said an inspection of the train, the Sunset Limited, "gives you the impression it was launched from the track." The FBI noted that the six barges in the creek yesterday morning were all too big to get under the bayou bridge.

"It was very foggy this morning," Mr. Archer said, and "I'm sure it's possible" that one of the barges turned into the creek away from the river. Another train had crossed the bridge without incident about 54 minutes before the Sunset Limited.

Mr. Archer said, "We are exploring the possibility that a barge may have hit the bridge or knocked it down before the other train came."

The rust-red barges, packed with coal and cement, bore the marking WGN, the logo of the Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., a Chickasaw, Ala.-based company. While the company was cooperating with the investigation, a statement from company president Nick Bartry said simply, "We don't have any official comment."

Mobile Police Chief Harold Johnson said that if a barge was responsible for the damage, state criminal charges could be pursued.

The FBI sent forensic experts to help identify the dead and metallurgists to test the bridges and barges.

The Miami-bound Sunset Limited, which had started its cross-country odyssey from Los Angeles, was hurtling through the fog and darkness about 3 a.m. Most of the 189 passengers were dozing as the train sped out onto the long steel and wooden trestle.

When the lead engine hit the final segment of the span, it plunged into the 16-foot-deep bayou, pulling two other locomotives, the baggage and crew cars and two passenger coaches into the water.

A fireball flashed from the engine. Emergency brakes automatically engaged, and the eighth car in the train came to a screaming halt at the edge of the abyss, partly sticking out over the end of the bridge.

Almost immediately, a searchlight clicked on from a nearby tug, and the crew made for the scene to help.

Within the submerged cars were scenes of horror. Passengers from the cars still atop the bridge helped rescue those in the water but couldn't get to the submerged cars. Rescuers rushed to the scene, six miles from the nearest road and accessible only by boat.

Amtrak's Sunset Limited connects Miami and Los Angeles, takes 68 hours and runs 3,066 miles through eight states.

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