Hearings on train crash to look beyond the cause Investigators to examine victims' inability to flee

June 26, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

When hearings begin today on last February's train crash near Silver Spring, federal investigators will not only focus on the cause of the accident that claimed 11 lives.

They also want to know why some passengers could not escape the burning cars, and why U.S. transportation officials have been slow to adopt new safety standards for commuter trains.

"We will be asking probing questions about commuter rail safety issues that affect Washington-area commuters and millions of other Americans who use the rails to get to work and back home every day," said Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The board, the nation's transportation safety watchdog, will conduct three days of public hearings at the Doubletree Hotel in Rockville.

The panel will try to determine why an eastbound Maryland Rail Commuter train from Brunswick to Washington rammed into a westbound Amtrak train near Silver Spring at 5: 38 p.m. Feb. 16.

Three crew members and eight passengers on the MARC train died, nine from smoke inhalation.

Survivors have told investigators of futile, frantic efforts to open jammed doors. Investigators have said that at least some of the dead might have survived if they had been able to escape the burning cars.

Robert C. Lauby, an NTSB hearing officer, said the safety board will question federal transit and railroad officials about their role in developing safety standards for passenger rail cars and overseeing rail operations.

"We're going to ask about their role in the oversight of commuter rail lines, and how they make sure these particular lines are operating safely," said Lauby, who sits on the four-member Board of Inquiry looking into the accident.

The NTSB and the Federal Railroad Administration often do not see eye-to-eye on the urgency of safety measures.

Earlier this month, the railroad administration turned down an "urgent" request by the NTSB to impose several immediate changes that would make it easier to escape from a rail car in an emergency.

The railroad administration did not see the need for such a rush, a spokesman said.

Federal railroad administrator Jolene M. Molitoris said her agency will address those safety issues in new rules it will propose this fall. That rule-making process, however, might not be completed until November 1999.

Another issue to be explored at the hearing is whether a signal that should have warned the MARC engineer to slow down was operating properly, and, if it was, why he did not heed it. The engineer died in the crash.

Investigators examining the signal "haven't been able to isolate any obvious failures of that system," NTSB spokesman Pat Cariseo said.

Rail employees have complained about problems with the signal system, but "at this point we can't find any problems with it," he said. "We're not through yet."

In addition, the board will try to determine if the train crews were distracted and if passenger car emergency exits are properly maintained and marked.

The first witness scheduled this morning is Donald Noble, who was the engineer of the Amtrak train.

Pub Date: 6/26/96

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