August 10, 1997 in Nation/World

Amtrak Train Derails In Arizona Desert None Killed, Few Badly Hurt In Wreck Near Dawn

Washington Post
 

An Amtrak train carrying 330 passengers and a crew of 18 derailed before dawn Saturday as it hurtled through a stretch of northwestern Arizona desert, injuring scores of people.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief No. 4, traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago, went off the tracks at 4:55 a.m. as it sped across a small bridge over a normally dry river bed that had flooded following torrential rains overnight.

The jolt felt “as if you were sitting in your recliner in your living room and someone threw it up in the air about three feet and shoved it into a wall at about 60 mph,” said Erik Terberg, 41, a tool and die maker from Riverside, Calif., who was awake, keeping an eye on his Boy Scout troop, when the accident occurred.

Although the train had been moving swiftly - at 88 miles an hour - with 307 passengers on board, no one was killed, and few of the injuries were severe. Some 153 patients were treated at a hospital in Kingman, Ariz., about 15 miles away, but only five were admitted. Two people with especially severe fractures were flown to larger hospitals.

“Honest, I don’t have a bruise,” said one passenger, Mary Barth, 71, of Iowa City, who was on the way to see her daughter in Albuquerque as part of a 45-day trip by train that already had taken her to Seattle and San Francisco. “There must have been a lot of angels over that train.”

A 14-member team from the National Transportation Safety Board left from Washington Saturday afternoon to launch an investigation. Before departing, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said the train’s speed had been appropriate for that section of track, which is owned by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad.

Hall said the track had been equipped with an automatic device intended to halt trains if their engineers disregard signals warning them to stop. He said there was “no indication” that the derailment was related to any failure of the automaticstop device.

In sections of track that have such equipment, the maximum allowable speed is 90 mph, two miles higher than the rate at which the Southwest Chief had been traveling.

Jody Schanaman, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department in Mohave County, where the derailment occurred, said the “area (of track) is pretty much a straight stretch. No curves or turns. You can just shoot across it.”

The accident took place in a sparsely populated section of Arizona desert known as Walapai, about 100 miles southeast of Las Vegas, where the railroad track runs parallel to the old Route 66, a few hundred yards away.

David Bolger, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said Amtrak’s westbound Southwest Chief passed the same area at about 2 a.m. and reported no problems. And because of the heavy rains, a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe track supervisor was out last night inspecting track in a “high rail” vehicle. At 2:30 a.m., he passed the spot and noticed nothing wrong, Bolger said.

Just before the derailment, the assistant engineer noticed what appeared to be a hump in the track ahead of him, Bolger said. The lead engine bounced, then the next three engines and 16 cars lurched off the track.

The Southwest Chief, which had a scheduled departure from Los Angeles at 8:35 p.m. Friday, was made up of four engines followed by 16 cars: a baggage car, a dormitory car for the crew, four coaches, a lounge car, a dining car, two sleeping cars, and six “express” cars carrying mail and other material.

All but the lead engine derailed, although the train remained upright, according to Cliff Black, an Amtrak spokesman in Washington.

Barth, a retired employee of the University of Iowa, said she had been asleep in a window seat in the third coach car.

“All of a sudden there was this deafening noise,” she said in a telephone interview Saturday afternoon from Kingman Junior High School, where local Red Cross workers had set up a waiting area for uninjured passengers. “You were just swayed back and forth and back and forth.”

Barth said she waited in her seat, watching as emergency workers, school buses and helicopters arrived, until an Amtrak worker told passengers that it was safe to disembark. “I got off and took pictures,” she said. Then she disregarded orders not to re-enter the car and retrieved the birthday present she had packed for her daughter, Diane.

Outside the cars, the track bed was strewn with “twisted steel and pieces of train and railroad ties … everywhere,” said Terberg, the scoutmaster who was accompanying his son, Jonathan, and 14 other teenage Boy Scouts on a two-week trip to Philmont Scout Ranch, in Cimarron, N.M.

Terberg said the scouts traveling in his car and other scouts in the dining car put their training to work by helping Amtrak workers keep other passengers calm and prying doors open. Once the darkness had given way to dawn, and rescue crews could get to work, the scouts hauled people on gurneys and backboards to waiting helicopters and ambulances.

By shortly after 9 a.m., the scouts were the last passengers to leave the site, Terberg said. Like their fellow passengers, they were taken by bus to Kingman Regional Medical Center, a 120-bed hospital that had summoned about 100 employees to augment the half-dozen people usually on duty in the emergency room on a Saturday morning.

Brian Turney, the hospitals’ chief executive officer, said 30 patients were treated in the emergency room for injuries including fractures, while passengers with more minor medical problems were treated in overflow areas elsewhere in the hospital. Turney said one busload of about two dozen passengers with slight injuries was taken to a hospital in nearby Bullhead City.

If the injuries were relatively minor, that was at least partly attributable to improvements in train technology. The four locomotives had new “crash-proof” fuel tanks intended to prevent fires. And all passenger trains now have “tightlock couplers” that connect the cars and are designed to hold them together securely in an accident.

By Saturday afternoon, the derailed cars stood upright in the clear sunshine. Most had remained in line, although a few were leaning and had jack-knifed slightly. There was still a slight flow of water in the “wash,” the shallow river bed prone to flash-floods in heavy rains such as those that took place Friday night. The 8-foot-high bridge was collapsed.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THIRD RECENT DERAILMENT FOR AMTRAK Saturday’s accident was the third derailment involving an Amtrak train in the last several months. In Northern Virginia last month, a southbound Amtrak passenger train was sideswiped by a CSX freight train during evening rush hour. Three of the CSX cars derailed; the Amtrak cars remained on their track, although three employees were injured. Last November, an Amtrak train derailed in Northern New Jersey, injuring 34 people.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THIRD RECENT DERAILMENT FOR AMTRAK Saturday’s accident was the third derailment involving an Amtrak train in the last several months. In Northern Virginia last month, a southbound Amtrak passenger train was sideswiped by a CSX freight train during evening rush hour. Three of the CSX cars derailed; the Amtrak cars remained on their track, although three employees were injured. Last November, an Amtrak train derailed in Northern New Jersey, injuring 34 people.


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