MARC crews untrained for rail disasters Chairman responds to testimony with call for improvements

Changes doable 'overnight'

Hearing investigates fatal train crash in Silver Spring

June 28, 1996|By Marina Sarris and Peter Jensen | Marina Sarris and Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Crew members on the MARC train that crashed last February in Silver Spring were not trained in how to help passengers in a disaster -- or even how to open emergency exits, federal investigators were told yesterday.

Witnesses testifying before the National Transportation Safety Board did not speculate whether such training might have saved the 11 people who died in the wreck -- most after being trapped inside the fiery Maryland Rail Commuter service train.

But the board's chairman urged the rail industry to begin teaching its crews about emergency evacuation procedures, even though it is not required by federal law.

"These are things most people think they are entitled to when they purchase a ticket," said James E. Hall, the NTSB chairman. "I hope as a result of this hearing, it will be performed here."

In a blunt message seemingly directed at rail industry officials, Hall suggested the changes could be made "overnight" and needn't wait for federal rules.

His panel is expected to recommend that the government adopt such rules.

Hall's comments came as the board held the second of three days of hearings into the cause of the fatal Feb. 16 collision of the eastbound MARC Train 286 and Amtrak's westbound Capitol Limited.

On Wednesday, a survivor and rescuers described the difficulty people had escaping the burning MARC train, which was operated by CSX Transportation Inc.

Rescuers said they could not break open jammed emergency doors in time to save screaming people aboard the train. The accident claimed the lives of three crew members and eight passengers, all students in a Job Corps program.

Yesterday, Willis A. Henry, a CSX employee who would have been a member of the fated MARC train's crew had he not taken the day off to repair his car, admitted he had never opened an emergency window in his 20 years as a conductor. But he scoffed at a suggestion that conductors could train passengers on emergency exit locations or escape routes, as flight attendants do on planes.

"We don't have time," he said, noting that passengers are constantly entering and leaving the train.

State officials said they have already begun developing a training video with Amtrak and CSX to teach employees about passenger safety and emergency evacuation.

Much of the focus of the accident investigation has been on MARC Engineer Richard Orr. Officials want to know why he did not heed a trackside signal that should have warned him to slow down.

Yesterday, investigators pursued one possible explanation -- he and fellow crew members may have been distracted by a union dispute over seniority.

Just two weeks before the disaster, CSX consolidated the Maryland engineers and trainmen into larger seniority pools.

By losing seniority ranking, railroad employees can lose their rights to more desirable assignments and working hours.

Conductor Henry said the seniority issue was a "big concern" to his fellow crew members and had been discussed in a heated meeting all three attended the day before the crash.

Conductor Dennis Stevens testified that he had talked to an angry James Quillen, the assistant conductor, hours before he was killed in the accident.

"I thought things would be OK after talking to him," said Stevens, a union organizer.

The hearing also has focused on safety devices that might have prevented the crash, or at least reminded Orr of the warning signal he passed a short time before.

Dennis Morgan, a safety director at METRA, a Chicago-area commuter rail service, said his organization is developing a relatively inexpensive device that would remind engineers of the last signal they saw.

Without it, Morgan testified that engineers could forget a signal between stops because of distractions. "It becomes very easy," he said, "to forget what that last signal was."

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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