U.S. probing whether barge knocked down bridge in fatal Amtrak crash

September 23, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MOBILE, Ala. -- Investigators focused yesterday on the possibility that an errant barge might have knocked into a bridge here, sending an Amtrak train tumbling into a murky bayou.

"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 had pulled her from the train.

FBI agents questioned crewmen from a nearby tug. Near the accident scene, a flotilla of barges -- three abreast and two deep -- were parked, one with a dent still fresh with a white, powdery smear.

"We have the evidence that a barge hit something," John Hammerschmidt of the National Transportation Safety Board said at a news conference last night in Mobile. "The physical evidence is the scrape marks on the bridge and the scrape marks on the barge match up."

At nightfall, 43 bodies had been recovered from treacherous currents of the bayou, a tributary of the Mobile River, and 10 people were unaccounted for.

It was 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, in Baltimore County.

Another train had crossed the bridge without incident about 30 minutes before the Sunset Limited. "We're exploring the possibility that a barge may have hit the bridge or knocked it down before the other train came," said Charles Archer, special agent in charge of the Mobile office of the FBI.

Asked whether he was suggesting that the train might have gone off the edge of a broken bridge, Mr. Archer said: "It gives you the impression it was launched from the track."

Of the nearby barges, he said: "If it was in here and hit the trestle, three abreast wouldn't go between the pilings, and the trestle was too

low. The tugboat could have taken a wrong turn and gotten into the creek by mistake, assuming the six barges hit the bridge."

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

Barges are common on the waterways of the region and are routinely used for water commerce. But barges are not allowed in the area of the bridge.

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

The Sunset Limited, which had started its cross-country odyssey from Los Angeles, bound for Miami, was hurtling through the fog and darkness at 3:30 a.m. Most of the 189 passengers were dozing when it sped out onto the long steel and wood trestle.

When the lead engine hit the final segment of the span, it went plunging into the 25-foot-deep bayou, pulling the 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 over the end of the bridge.

Rescuers rushed to the scene, six miles from the nearest road and accessible only by boat.

The bridge gets visual inspections twice weekly, and more intensive checks are done annually, said Richard E. Bussard, director of communications for CSX Transportation Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., which owns the rail line.

The last visual inspection was Sunday. The annual inspection, which includes checking the bridge's stability and wear, was last done Feb. 10, while the latest underwater inspection was in 1990, he said.

Amtrak used laser beams to check external wear on the track and trestle on Sept. 9, while CSX did a similar inspection Aug. 10, Mr. Bussard said.

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