Federal agents, fearing the return of domestic terrorism, sought Monday night to identify the “Sons of Gestapo” after an apparent sabotage attack derailed Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, killing a trainman and injuring about a hundred passengers.
A note found outside the train in a remote expanse of desert referred to the federal sieges at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho - both rallying cries for right-wing anti-government extremists.
“That’s what leads me to believe this is a terrorist attack,” said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Asked who might be responsible, he said, “It leans toward the domestic side.”
Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, bound from Miami to Los Angeles with 248 passengers and 20 crew members, derailed while crossing a 30-foot-high bridge 50 to 60 miles southwest of Phoenix sometime after 1 a.m.
Four cars plunged from the bridge at 50 mph, with three coming to rest on their sides on the sandy bottom of the desert wash. Passengers, jolted awake, made their way through jumbled belongings and crawled out the windows.
“I heard babies screaming, and their mother was hollering each one of their names, one after the other,” said Betty Addington, 60, of Dallas, who was traveling with her 80-year-old mother to visit a sister in Los Angeles.
One person was killed, 12 were seriously hurt and about 100 others suffered less serious injuries, said Sgt. Tim Campbell, a sheriff’s spokesman. Some were treated at the scene and at least 67 were taken to Phoenix hospitals.
Amtrak put the total number of injured at 78. The railroad identified the dead man as Mitchell Bates, 41, a sleeping-car attendant based in Los Angeles.
“The last thing he said to me, before he went to bed last night, was ‘See you tomorrow, baby doll,”’ said Helen Martinez, of Los Angeles, a waitress on the train.
Phoenix hospitals reported treating at least 40 people, including one woman in critical condition. Among the hospitalized were a 3-month-old boy and a 31-year-old woman who was on her honeymoon.
Deputies found a one- or two-page message signed “Sons of Gestapo” at the scene, the sheriff said. The note referred to the government sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The site - 27 miles east of this speck on the map of southwestern Arizona - is accessible only by air and by four-wheel-drive vehicle. It took an hour for the first rescuers to reach the victims.
Investigators from the FBI, National Transportation Safety Board and other federal and state agencies combed the scene.
The sheriff said the saboteurs somehow “separated” the rail and that a wire was attached to disable an electronic system that would have warned the crew of a break in the line.
Investigators found that in a 19-foot section of track, 29 of the spikes that hold the rail to the wooden crossties had been pulled out, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs told a Washington news conference that someone removed a 36-inch steel bar weighing about 18 pounds that is used to connect two sections of rail. He said he hadn’t heard about the spikes being removed.
“Someone obviously intended to drop the train off the trestle into the ravine,” Downs said.
The bars are bolted to the rails and keep them from separating when trains pass over, Downs explained. He said the sabotage could have been done in about 10 minutes by someone with a rudimentary knowledge of railroading.
The last train to pass the spot was a freight that used the track about 18 hours before the wreck, Downs said. He didn’t know when the tracks were last inspected; ABC reported the last inspection was Thursday.
Amtrak bolstered security on its tracks and asked freight companies whose tracks it uses to do the same, Downs said. Amtrak hadn’t received any specific warnings in recent days, he said.
Derailing or wrecking a train involved in interstate commerce or its track or trestle is a federal felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. If death results from the crime, the death penalty can be imposed.
Klanwatch, an organization that tracks hate groups as part of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., has never heard of “Sons of Gestapo,” said Joe Roy, Klanwatch director.
He said it could be some kind of local group, or “this could be Fred the farmer who’s mad at Amtrak for cutting across his land.”
Roy said Arizona is a hotbed of anti-government paramilitary and white supremacist groups. Klanwatch counts about 20 groups in each category, he said.
Roberto Concepcion, an Amtrak bartender being treated in a Phoenix hospital, said a man he recognized as a passenger approached him after the wreck with a one-page typewritten document the passenger identified as an anti-government manifesto. The passenger described the paper as “anti-ATF, anti-FBI, anti-government” and said there were more copies lying around, according to Concepcion, who didn’t read it before giving it to deputies.
It was not immediately known if the document was the same one that the sheriff’s deputies found.
Graphic: Map of area.
MEMO: Amtrak said people who want to find out if their relatives were aboard the train can call (800) 523-9101.