Train derails in Fla., killing 6

172 injured

auto carrier was headed to Washington

`They're just thrown around'

April 19, 2002|By Alicia A. Caldwell | Alicia A. Caldwell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CRESCENT CITY, Fla. - An Amtrak Auto Train loaded with more than 450 northbound snowbirds and tourists jumped the track and crashed 60 miles north of Orlando late yesterday afternoon, killing at least six people, injuring 12 seriously and hurting 150 others.

Rescue workers who streamed into the rural crash area from throughout Central Florida were left to deal with a chaotic tangle of wrecked, half-buried train cars, dazed passengers, and local traffic jams that stretched for miles.

Barely an hour after Amtrak Auto Train No. 52 pulled out of the Sanford station at 4 p.m., the derailment in a forested area near the Volusia and Putnam county line turned dinnertime on a leisurely 855-mile journey to suburban Washington into a scene of misery and confusion.

By 10 p.m., Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Van Veen said all 440 passengers and 28 crew members had been cleared from the train. Van Veen would confirm only three fatalities, but Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Leeper put the death toll at six.

In Washington, spokesman Greg Martin said the National Transportation Safety Board is sending investigators to the scene. The cause of the derailment was not immediately known.

The Auto Train consisted of two engines, 16 passenger cars and 23 auto racks, Amtrak said. It travels between Sanford and Lorton, Va., and is favored by families traveling between Florida's theme parks and beaches and Washington landmarks.

Officials said 14 passenger cars and two others loaded with automobiles left the tracks, jackknifed and slid over the ground like a giant silver accordion.

"It's like Matchbox cars; they're just thrown around," said Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson. Rescue officials, using ladders to reach the overturned cars, helped survivors out of the train and reached through the windows to get to the people trapped inside. Medics and fellow passengers were seen helping the injured.

Rescuers went from car to car, painting orange C's on the bottom of the overturned cars once each was cleared of people.

Ambulances and emergency vehicles crowded nearby U.S. 17, which parallels the tracks, and school buses were used to take passengers away from the scene.

The derailment was the second-deadliest in a decade for Amtrak. Since 1992, most major derailments resulted in one or two deaths. The exception came in 1993, when 47 people died after an Amtrak train plunged into an Alabama bayou. That was the worst in Amtrak's history.

Yesterday's wreck took place near an "S-curve" with a 60 mph limit, said a local engineer familiar with that section. The Florida Highway Patrol said that for reasons not clear, the train's engineer did what was called a "full emergency stop" just after 5 p.m. when passengers were being called for dinner.

A family traveling in the train said it suddenly began to "rock and roll."

"It just really started getting weird," said Jacki Rose, 36, whose family had been vacationing at Walt Disney World. "I saw the sky in front of us, but there should have been a [train] car there."

The family, from East Providence, R.I., took the train because members were afraid to fly, Rose said, and had planned to drive home from Virginia. She was traveling with her husband, Henry, 38, and their children, 9 and 4.

Henry Rose said some people were trapped in their train car when they got out, and others were pinned beneath the car. The Roses said many of those on the train appeared to be senior citizens traveling back to their homes in the North for the summer.

One of the train's car carriers held a new Jaguar purchased by John Chemilin, 61, who was taking the car home to Cranberry, N.J., to show his children.

"The train started picking up speed," Chemilin said. "The next thing I knew it started rocking."

Cal Groton of Providence, R.I., who was on the train with his wife, Constance, said he could feel something going wrong. He turned to his wife: "I said, `This train is derailing.'"

After the crash, Constance said, the couple were pulled through the windows of their overturned train car windows by local residents who rushed to the scene to help.

"Everyone in our car was very calm," Cal said.

Ambulances and helicopters took about 150 patients to hospitals in Orlando, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach. Others were treated at the scene.

Some of the less seriously injured were taken to a school in Crescent City.

CSX officials said they had inspected the track in the crash vicinity yesterday morning. The company is required to inspect the track at least twice a week.

CSX hasn't done any work in the past six to eight weeks that would've disturbed the tracks, a spokesman said.

Amtrak has a toll-free number set up for family and friends who want to inquire about passengers: 800-523-9101.

Alicia A. Caldwell is a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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