Engineer's day began as routine Crash death baffles workers at CSX-T

Fatal Collision

February 20, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY AND FRED RASMUSSEN | JACQUES KELLY AND FRED RASMUSSEN,SUN STAFF

A commuter train engineer who died in Friday afternoon's fiery collision began his work that morning deep within the industrial heart of South Baltimore.

It was a little after the snowy morning rush hour when CSX engineer Richard Orr turned off Fort Avenue onto Ludlow Street and drove his car into the sprawling complex where locomotives are serviced and MARC commuter trains begin their day.

For Mr. Orr it was the beginning of another long but routine day on the line where he had worked for nearly a quarter of a century.

"As competent as he was, you wouldn't expect any problems," said James M. Gray, passenger operations manager for CSX-Transportation at Riverside and Mr. Orr's boss.

Mr. Orr, a 43-year-old Glen Burnie resident, was an engineer for 22 years, first on freight trains and beginning last year on passenger trains. He was "one of the quicker learners who made the transition from freight service to passenger service," said Mr. Gray, who was trying to control his emotions as he sat at his desk.

Mr. Orr, whom Mr. Gray described as a "congenial man," had qualified for engineer status in 1974 and had been a good employee ever since.

Safety is emphasized at the railroad yard. Yellow-and-black safety posters are mounted in hallways and large banners hang on a yard building, proclaiming 1,500 accident-free days for the Baltimore division.

And Friday began safely.

As Mr. Gray described it, Mr. Orr stepped into the cab of his MARC locomotive and pulled out of the Riverside yards at 10:10 a.m. He then guided the train into Camden Station in downtown Baltimore.

Here he was going to begin the first of four runs, a typical day.

Mr. Orr left the locomotive and entered the control car, the first car. At 11 a.m., with the locomotive pushing the train, he set off for Washington's Union Station. Snow was falling.

Once he reached the capital at 12:10 p.m., he had less than an hour off before taking his train along the Potomac River valley to Brunswick in Frederick County.

His schedule called for him to be at Brunswick at 2:20 p.m. He could then rest until 4:30 p.m., when he would return to Washington as scheduled at 5:50 p.m. After another layover, he was scheduled to bring another train back to Camden Station, discharge the passengers and return to the Riverside yard a little after 9 p.m.

Mr. Orr regularly worked 11-hour days, with scheduled breaks, five days a week, a work routine that was described as normal on a commuter railroad.

He never reached Union Station Friday evening. His train collided with Amtrak's westbound Capitol Limited heading for Chicago, sparking a fiery explosion and the deaths of 11 people: Mr. Orr, two railroad co-workers and eight passengers.

"He was a good, capable person. That makes it harder to understand what happened," said Mr. Gray.

The mood at Riverside yesterday was as melancholy as the wintry skies. Engineers and other workers stood at their lockers and pondered what went wrong. Most declined to speak to reporters. "We're just going about our business," one said.

The entire CSX-T system observed a noontime vigil to recall the deaths of the three workers: Mr. Orr; Linthicum resident James E. Major Jr., 48, the commuter train's conductor; and James Quillen, 53, the assistant conductor, who lived in Frederick.

"They were all good employees," said a somber Mr. Gray.

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