Pilot guided barge into Amtrak bridge Lost, he sought help before wreck

September 24, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

MOBILE, Ala. -- An assistant towboat operator -- licensed for a year -- guided a barge into a railroad bridge and then radioed for help 12 minutes before the span collapsed beneath the Sunset Limited, investigators said yesterday.

"The fact is, he was lost," said Capt. Mike Powers, Coast Guard Marine Safety Office commander.

The boating accident appeared to set in motion Wednesday morning's train wreck, the worst in Amtrak's history, leaving 44 dead and three crewmen missing and presumed dead inside a locomotive embedded in 12 feet of mud. There were 163 confirmed survivors.

The man apparently piloting the six barges loaded with coal, coke and wood chips through the early-morning fog was Andrew Stabler of Atmore, Ala. A master pilot and two crew members were also aboard the Mauvila, which veered off course from the Mobile River into the Bayou Canot.

"He should certainly know where he is at all times," Captain Powers said.

The National Transportation Safety Board officials will attempt to interview the pilot and crew members today, but "let's say it's not encouraging," said John Hammerschmidt, an NTSB member.

The crew members have retained legal counsel.

According the the Coast Guard, the pilot hit the bridge and reported the accident at 3:06 a.m. local time. But the pilot was under the impression he had hit a bridge in the Mobile River, so no effort was made to stop the Amtrak train, Captain Powers said.

According to a handwritten log, the pilot said, "Mayday, mayday. I've lost my tow. There is too much fog. Don't know exact location."

Twelve minutes later, the Sunset Limited fell into the bayou. It was the crew of the Mauvila that then led the initial recovery effort, providing a beam of light while plucking 17 survivors from the bayou.

Mr. Stabler told the Birmingham News, "We saved lives."

The pilot and crew underwent routine drug and alcohol tests administered by the barge owner, Warrior & Gulf Navigation of nearby Chickasaw.

The local district attorney continues to investigate the accident.

"We don't yet know accurately what happened in this incident, but we have been, are, and will continue to participate with all of the agencies seeking to resolve the questions," said Nicholas J. Barchie, Warrior & Gulf president.

At a news conference last night, NTSB investigators also disclosed that an assistant conductor in the second to last car of the train tried to contact crew members in the lead locomotive without success after the accident. He then shouted on an CSX radio channel, "Mayday, mayday!"

The assistant conductor organized a rescue. He told investigators that it took about 15 minutes for the towboat to clear a path to the wreckage.

Mr. Hammerschmidt said the train was traveling 70 mph at the time of the accident, having passed through a final green signal 3/4 of a mile before falling into the bayou.

Young victim found

Meanwhile, rescuers continued the search for bodies.

They found a little girl just before daybreak, floating on her back in the murky bayou that was littered with jagged steel, chunks of wood and train cars strewn around like a child's toys.

John Barnett, a volunteer diver from Orange Grove, Miss., was the first to reach for the 5-year-old. He noticed the pretty, frilly clothes she wore, but he was struck by the look of anguish on her face.

"We all have kids," Mr. Barnett said. "You see a little girl like that and you imagine she's your own. It's a hard, hard feeling."

Divers found victims locked in bathrooms, sitting in seats and lying on the floor.

"There is zero visibility down there -- you're going by feel," said Mark Lampkin, an auto body repairman who leads the Orange Grove Fire and Rescue unit.

"You dive and dive until you get so tired, someone else has to come in," he said. "With all of the alligators and snakes around, I'm very impressed any of those survivors got out alive."

Survivors try to cope

Meanwhile, at a downtown hotel, train wreck survivors prepared to head home.

For some, like Mike Dopheide, the 26-year-old law school graduate from Omaha, who led 35 passengers to safety, yesterday became an almost surreal experience. Suddenly, he was a hero, very much in demand, ushered to a spot near the crash site for a series of television interviews.

"I'm just happy to be alive," he said.

Others nursed broken bones or spoke emotionally about their story of survival.

Amtrak offered to bus any of the passengers to the Sunset Limited's final destination -- Miami.

There were no takers.

Relatives identify kin

Amtrak officials also stepped up the task of identifying the victims of the wreck, as family members flew in from around the country to view pictures of the dead and make funeral arrangements.

The family members were taken into a hotel ballroom, where they made the identifications. They then received counseling from local clergy and psychologists.

"You go to bed one night and you have two parents. And the next morning, you wake up, and they're gone," said Allan Renz, Jr., of Mineola, N.Y., whose parents, Allan, Sr., and Catherine, were killed.

The Renz couple had just completed a six-week vacation in San Francisco with their daughter and were on their way home to Bradenton, Fla.

"My parents had a dread fear of flying," Mr. Renz said. "They loved the train."

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