Amtrak train on wrong track in crash that killed 2, but it says freight line controls signals
iStock/Thinkstock(CAYCE, S.C.) — A Miami-bound Amtrak train appeared to be on the wrong track when it collided with a freight train in South Carolina early Sunday, killing two people and injuring 116, according to authorities.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that the track the Amtrak train was on had been manually switched and “lined and locked.” It caused it to divert from the main line and onto a side track, where the freight train was parked.
“Of course key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way because the expectation is the Amtrak would be cleared and would be operating straight down” the main line, Sumwalt said.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at a news conference that a CSX freight train appeared to be on a loading track when the Amtrak train with 147 people aboard slammed into it at 2:35 a.m. in Cayce, South Carolina, just east of Columbia.
“It appears that the Amtrak was on the wrong track,” McMaster said at the news conference midday Sunday. “They weren’t supposed to be meeting right there by the bridge, clearly. And it may be a time factor, but that’s what it appears to me. But I defer to those who are experts in that and do have the correct information, but it appears that Amtrak was on the wrong track.”
The two people who died were the train conductor and engineer, the county coroner said.
Amtrak officials said in a statement that they are “deeply saddened” by the deaths of its employees and that the agency is cooperating fully with the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration in the investigation of the crash.
Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s president and chief executive officer, told reporters in a telephone news conference that CSX railroad operates all aspects of the tracks in the area where the crash occurred.
“They are in complete control of the track, the signaling, the switching and, in fact, our train engineers and conductors, as we move over their railroad, are directed and in regular contact with the dispatch center at CSX,” Anderson said.
He said at the time of the crash Amtrak crew was communicating with a CSX dispatcher via a telephone communication system. He said the signaling system that controls traffic on the four tracks in the area was down for maintenance.
“Normally the train is directed by the dispatcher and the dispatcher in this case was CSX,” Anderson said. “The control of which train is on which track is within the authority of the dispatcher and the host railroad that controls the switch.”
He said Amtrak train 91, which was traveling from Penn Station in New York to Miami, should have been on the main line, but it was directed to tracks just east of it, where a CSX train was parked.
The speed the Amtrak train was going at the time of the collision is still under investigation, but Sumwalt said the speed limit in the area is 59 miles per hour.
Sunwalt said the CSX train had two locomotives and 34 empty auto-rack cars. He said prior to the Amtrak train’s arrival in the area, the CSX train had unloaded automobiles on the west side of the main line and then used it to back into a side track on the east side of the main line.
Asked if there was any evidence of a mechanical problem with the rail switch that diverted the Amtrak onto the side track, Sumwalt said, “We were able to see that it was actually literally locked with a padlock to make it lined to go into the siding.”
He said typically when rail switches are mechanically thrown “the conductor will get out and lock it in that particular position.” He said the investigation will focus on why the rail switch wasn’t put back to allow the Amtrak train to keep moving straight down the main line.
Sumwalt also said a front-facing video camera in the Amtrak locomotive had been recovered and sent to the NTSB laboratory in Washington, D.C., to be analyzed. He said the train’s event data recorder, which should say the exact speed of the train when it crashed and if the crew tried to apply the brakes, had not been located as of Sunday evening.
“I can tell you there’s catastrophic damage to each of the locomotives,” Sumwalt said. “In fact, I would say that the Amtrak locomotive would be not recognizable at all.”
ABC News reached out CSX, but the company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Sumwalt said the CSX controlled tracks were not equipped with Positive Train Control, a high-tech overlay system Amtrak uses on tracks it operates. The system is designed to read signals and automatically stop a train before certain accidents occur.
“An operational PTC system is designed to prevent this type of accident,” Sumwalt said.
The crash came just five days after an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress collided with a garbage truck in western Virginia, killing one passenger and injuring several others.
Sunday’s wreck was the third fatal Amtrak incident since mid-December.
The two Amtrak employees killed Sunday are 54-year-old Michael Kempf, the train engineer, and 36-year-old Michael Cella, the train conductor, said Margaret Fisher, coroner for Lexington County, South Carolina. Kempf was from Savannah, George, and Cella from Orange Park, Florida, Fisher said.
Both men were in the first car, the locomotive car, when the collision occurred, the coroner said. She said she spoke on the phone to the wives of both men.
“They were very distraught, very shocked, as anyone would be in this situation,” the coroner, Fisher, said.
Fisher added that given the size of the trains involved and how many people were aboard the Amtrak, “You would have expected more fatalities.”
The more than 100 people injured suffered everything from minor cuts to broken bones, Gov. McMaster said. At least 62 people were treated at three hospitals in the area, said Dr. Eric Brown, the executive physician for Palmetto Health.
He said three children were among those treated at hospitals.
Brown said six people were admitted to hospitals for more severe injuries, including head trauma.
Anderson said that besides the P-42 locomotive, the Amtrak train was comprised of three coach cars, a cafe lounge car, two sleeper cars and a baggage car.
Alexandra Delgado of Tampa, Florida, told ABC News she boarded the train in Raleigh, North Carolina, about 9:30 p.m. Saturday and was riding the rails because she’s terrified to fly. She said she was sitting in a car near the front of the train when the crash occurred.
“People were screaming. I thought I was gonna die. I didn’t think I was gonna survive that,” Delgado said as she waited at Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital in Columbia to be treated for two injured knees. “When we crashed, everyone got ejected from their seats… Trays all over.”
She said her sister-in-law, who was sitting next to her on the train, suffered a shattered ankle. She said she saw an elderly woman with a bloodied face and a bone sticking out of her leg, and another women who was sitting in front of her with a severe jaw injury.
“Don’t ask me to get on another train,” Delgado said. “I’m never gonna get on a train.”
Passenger Derek Pettaway told ABC News that he and his wife were in a sleeper car near the back of the train when the crash occurred.
“There was a lot of violent shaking and everything just came to a stop, and I hit my head on the wall,” said Pettaway, 33, of the Philadelphia area, who was traveling with his wife, Erin, 32, to Orlando for vacation. “When it was happening, it was quick. You just knew it was not the regular type of movement.”
“The cafe car, which was located just in front of our car, was completely folded in half,” he said.
Amtrak staff quickly got people off the train, Pettaway said. He said he was taken to a hospital and treated for a bump on his head and whiplash and that his wife was not injured. After he was released from the hospital, he reunited with his wife at a makeshift shelter at a school near where the train crash occurred.
Passenger Walt Johnson of Angier, North Carolina, said he and his wife, Gloria, were just dozing off to sleep when “I just heard a bang.”
“The train started to swerve like it was leaving the tracks,” Johnson told ABC News. “All of a sudden (there was) just a big force and that force took me out of my seat.”
He said he hurt both of his knees when he landed in the aisle.
White House officials said President Trump, who in South Florida Sunday, was briefed on the train crash.
“My thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims involved in this mornings train collision in South Carolina. Thank you to our incredible First Responders for the work they’ve done!” Trump said in a tweet.
CSX said in a statement early Sunday that “an incident involving a CSX train and an Amtrak train occurred in Cayce, SC near Dixiana Road and S.R. 26. Reports of injuries have been confirmed. An emergency response plan has been activated to provide full support. Lexington County authorities have been notified and are responding to the incident. Additional information will be made available as details of the incident are confirmed.”
Gov. McMasters said there was a rapid response from numerous emergency crews. He said the National Transportation Safety Board was sending a crew to investigate, and that South Carolina State Police and the FBI were assisting in the investigation.
“I know it’s a Sunday morning and a lot of folks are going to church. I would ask that they say a prayer for these people involved,” McMaster said.
The NTSB go team investigating the crash will consist of more than a dozen investigators and support staff.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao sent Jim Ray, her senior advisor, to the crash scene to monitor the situation, the agency said in a statement.
“It is important to understand the factors that contributed to this tragic accident and how all stakeholders can ensure a safe and reliable rail system going forward,” the agency’s statement reads.
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