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Passengers recount smoke, blood on crashed S. Carolina train

February 6, 2018
Associated Press

CAYCE, S.C. (AP) — Passengers on a train that slammed into an empty freight train over the weekend in South Carolina, killing two Amtrak employees, described a smoky, bloody scene in 911 calls released to the news media.

"There's babies with their heads busted wide open, bleeding," one woman said to a dispatcher in a call released Tuesday to local news outlets. "Everybody flew to the front of the train. ... Everything is everywhere."

In another call, a man described seeing smoke inside the cars and "a lot of people hurt." An Amtrak employee asks dispatchers to send "plenty of help" for the injured.

In interviews with The Associated Press, passengers have described seats ripped from their rows and luggage strewn about the passenger compartments after the crash early Sunday morning near Cayce (CAY-see), South Carolina. The conductor and engineer aboard the New York-to-Miami Amtrak train were killed when that craft collided with a CSX Corp. freight train parked on a side track. More than 100 passengers were treated at hospitals for injuries.

"We're on the train, but some of us have chest pains," another man told a dispatcher. "We need some help. ... I've got to sit down, I can't breathe."

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that railway signals were out at the time of the crash while crews installed a safety system that could have prevented the exact type of wreck that killed engineer Michael Kempf and conductor Michael Cella.

Automated signals that could have warned the passenger train to stop before reaching the switch sending it down the side track were turned off as workers installed a GPS-based system called positive train control, or PTC, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

A day before, Sumwalt told reporters "an operational PTC is designed to prevent this type of incident."

Federal investigators also said a locked manual switch forced the passenger train onto the side track where the empty freight train was parked after having offloaded its cargo nearby.

The crew that parked the CSX freight train on the side track and left the padlocked switch in position to divert trains from the main line were interviewed Monday, along with the dispatcher keeping up with trains in the area as the signals weren't working, Sumwalt said.

Sumwalt told reporters he had not been briefed about what the CSX workers said.

The Amtrak engineer sounded his horn seven seconds before the crash and applied emergency brakes three seconds before the train collided with the other locomotive at 50 mph (80 kph), Sumwalt said, citing information from the passenger train's data recorder.

"The expectation for the Amtrak crew is that they were clear," Sumwalt said.

Positive train control is already installed in parts of the U.S. The system is designed to prevent two trains from traveling on the same track at the same time.

Positive train control relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and automatically slow or stop trains that are in danger of colliding, derailing from excessive speed, or about to enter track where crews are working or that is otherwise off limits.

Railroads were given seven years to start using the technology across the country's 20,000 locomotives and 60,000 miles of track. But when it became clear that few if any railroads would meet the deadline, Congress extended it another three years to Dec. 31, 2018, with the option to grant railroads that show progress an additional two years to Dec. 31, 2020. Several freight railroads have previously told the government they won't be able to meet the 2018 deadline.

Overall, freight railroads have implemented PTC on 56 percent of required route miles, according to the Association of American Railroads. The association said it's not clear yet how many of the seven large freight railroads operating in the U.S. will require extensions.

Kempf, the engineer killed in the crash, visited a counselor to help him cope after being rattled in a previous wreck less than a year before, his mother said.

Michael Kempf's train hit a vehicle at a rail crossing in the first crash, Catherine Kempf, 86, said in a telephone interview Monday from the Savannah, Georgia, home she shared with her son and his wife.

Catherine Kempf said she didn't remember specifics about the collision on her son's normal route in the Carolinas, but she said the wreck left him upset because he knew "he had people's lives in his hands," she told The Associated Press.

Kempf and conductor Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida, were killed early Sunday in the third fatal Amtrak train crash in less than two months.

Cella's wife, Christine, declined to talk to the AP about the man who had been her partner for about 20 years. "There's just ... it's too much right now," she said by phone.

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Dalesio reported from Raleigh, North Carolina. Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina; Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report, along with AP video journalist Josh Replogle.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at https://apnews.com/search/meg%20kinnard .

 
 
 

 

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