FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A Miami-bound Amtrak passenger train ripped through a gasoline truck trapped on the tracks yesterday afternoon, igniting fireballs that killed six people.
The flames engulfed eight vehicles waiting at the crossing, killing the truck driver, three people in a van and two in separate cars. All 138 people on the train survived, although at least six were injured.
"Everything was just a ball of flame. The fireball had to be 150, 200 feet high. I saw a B-52 go down in Vietnam. That's the only thing I can compare it to," said Branson Willis, a stockbroker who works in an office building near the tracks.
The train, the Silver Star from New York, was heading toward the Fort Lauderdale Amtrak station about five miles away when it slammed into an Amerada-Hess truck carrying 8,500 gallons of gasoline at 3:13 p.m.
The tanker was on the tracks, caught in a traffic jam where three lanes merged into two. When the crossing lights went on and the warning gate fell, the driver had nowhere to go.
"The train couldn't have been more than a couple of hundred yards away when the warning sounded," witness Jeff Shapiro said. "It kept coming, and it split this tanker in two. It went right through it."
Gasoline spilled everywhere, and it exploded almost instantly, engulfing waiting cars.
The train, which was traveling about 35 mph when it hit the truck, rolled to a stop about 70 yards past the intersection. The locomotive was scorched and sooty.
When he heard the explosion, Mr. Willis rushed for the door and watched the flames roll west and envelop the cars stopped for the train.
"Here's this incredible scene with the Amtrak train -- the front of the train is burned to bits -- and there was a line of cars heading east at the crossing, and they were totally in flames, totally charred," Mr. Willis said.
About a dozen people suffered minor injuries, rescue workers said, and three were taken to hospitals. Most suffered smoke inhalation.
The train's passengers were jolted from their seats and fled from their cars, some with their luggage.
"It picked me up out of my seat and slammed me into the seat in front of me," said James Mullins, 21, of North Carolina. "There was silence for a minute; then smoke started rolling out from under the train. Then I saw the flames."
Gary Wollenhaupt, a spokesman for CSX Transportation, which maintains and operates the tracks, said the crossing signals were working properly and the gates were down when the train hit.
"Obviously, the truck was on the tracks," Amtrak spokesman Howard Robertson said. "We're not sure if he stalled, if he tried to beat it. We were sounding the horn. They were sounding it a long way off."