8 victims died of burns, smoke Examiner's report supports accounts of faulty train exits

February 20, 1996|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers JoAnna Daemmrich, Peter Hermann, Peter Jensen, Tanya Jones, Marcia Myers and Suzanne Wooton contributed to this article.

In an article yesterday about the train collision Friday in Silver Spring, the state Mass Transit Administration was incorrectly named.

The Sun regrets the error.

Eight of the 11 people who perished in the fiery Silver Spring train crash died of burns and smoke inhalation, suggesting that more might have survived the accident had all exit doors and windows been working properly.

The findings announced yesterday by the Maryland medical examiner's office underscore witnesses' reports that some passengers survived the initial impact of MARC and Amtrak trains but could not escape the subsequent flames and smoke.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Investigators have confirmed that some doors and windows on the MARC train -- which carried all 11 victims -- would not open. A "survival factors" team yesterday was reviewing autopsy reports, the location of bodies on the train, emergency exits and flammability of materials on the MARC car.

But federal officials said they did not believe that Amtrak's use of older diesel engines -- one of which erupted into flames after the collision -- is an unsafe practice.

The Amtrak train in Friday's collision was using two engines: one of the older variety, followed by a state-of-the-art engine that some believe has a better-protected fuel tank.

Amtrak officials already have said that they are phasing out the old locomotives, which have diesel tanks positioned outside their main frames and which safety advocates have criticized as more vulnerable to rupture.

All 11 victims -- eight young Job Corps trainees and three MARC crew members -- were riding in the first car of the MARC train, which bore the brunt of the collision. Yet only three of the passengers suffered fatal injuries from that impact. The car then went up in flames from the diesel fuel that spilled from the Amtrak engine.

Investigators continued their work yesterday, testing the visibility the track signal that was intended to stop the MARC train before it reached a junction with the Amtrak train. Other tests will determine what problems might have contributed to the deaths.

Lt. Denise Fox, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Fire Department, said that she met an emergency medical technician at the crash scene who told her about seeing people trapped on the rail car.

"She heard people screaming and banging on the windows," Lieutenant Fox said last night. "By the time the first firefighters got there, the car was engulfed in flames and [the passengers] were dead."

But MARC officials say they have discovered nothing to indicate that safety features on the cars were not working.

They said that every car is equipped with four exit windows -- two near the center of the car, on opposite sides, and two on the opposite ends of the car. Those windows can be opened by pulling a latch and pushing it outward to release the rubber seal around the opening. The windows are designed so they can't be opened without following the nearby instructions. None of the other windows on the car can be opened.

Also, each car is equipped with an emergency release system which allows passengers to open the train's outside door. That door is locked electronically and normally can be opened only by the conductor.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said they have received no complaints about emergency exits on the 120-seat Sumitomo Corp. cars, which were designed to meet federal standards. The state agency upgraded emergency windows on the cars last year.

Questions also persisted yesterday about whether the location of a signal might have contributed to the accident.

In an upgrade of the signal system in 1993, CSX-T, which owns and maintains the line, placed a signal before the Kensington station near Silver Spring, but removed another that was positioned to be seen by the train crew after departing the station. Investigators say the engineer in Friday's crash could have become distracted at the station and forgotten the signal.

MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. said he has asked MARC employees to look into some of the concerns raised by the crash investigation, including whether the placement of the signal was a factor in the crash.

"I want my people to question CSX about what did occur when the signals were upgraded, what was taken and taken out," said Mr. Agro, whose agency helped finance the upgrade three years ago.

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman John Fitzpatrick said the removal of the old signal is "not inherently dangerous." Having one signal before the station helps dispatchers alert incoming trains of problems at the station, he said.

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