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Ricky Gates: 6 years sober Yes, he declares, marijuana caused 1987 rail tragedy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was supposed to be a milk run.

For Conrail engineer Ricky L. Gates, the Sunday trip from Baltimore to Harrisburg was a four- or five-hour job that would net him two days' pay under union rules.

"The main thing going through my mind was, 'This is great, and I'll still be in the bars with my friends this evening,' " Mr. Gates said.

The milk run became a party on that January day in 1987, when brakeman Edward Cromwell lighted up a marijuana joint and passed it to his engineer.

But less than 18 minutes later, their blunders had carried the locomotives into the path of a speeding Amtrak passenger train, spiraling the "party" into a twisted, flaming train wreck that killed 16 people, injured 170 and changed Mr. Gates' life forever.

Over cigarettes and coffee last week, in a diner near the Oakview Treatment Center in Ellicott City where he works as a counselor after serving four years in prison, Mr. Gates talked candidly about what he calls "my accident."

He spoke of the twin addictions -- alcohol and marijuana -- that by 1987 had already wrecked his family and cost him many friends. He also talked about his continuing struggle with guilt and shame, a sobriety now more than 6 years old, and a sense of self-worth found in helping others.

"I wouldn't trade a day of what I'm going through now for any of those so-called 'good times' I had in the past," he said.

Mr. Gates, 38, has tried to avoid publicity since the accident. He offered to be interviewed only to defend Michael S. Gimbel, Baltimore County's substance-abuse director.

Mr. Gimbel came under fire in The Sun's letters-to-the-editor columns after he cited the Chase train wreck as an example of the dangers of marijuana use.

The letter-writers -- at least one of them an advocate of marijuana legalization -- sought to downplay the role of marijuana in the crash. But Mr. Gates says they're wrong.

"If the joint hadn't been there, I wouldn't have been so inattentive," he said. "I feel it was pretty much exclusively the marijuana -- the marijuana and the disease of addiction."

Ricky Gates today is a slim, polite, soft-spoken man with gray-blue eyes. His hair and neatly trimmed mustache are graying. The beard in those 1987 news photos is gone.

Brakeman got immunity

He served almost two years of a five-year state sentence for manslaughter by locomotive, then two more years of a three-year federal sentence for lying to investigators.

Mr. Cromwell, his brakeman, received immunity in exchange for his testimony.

At the request of crash victims and their families, Mr. Gates testified in favor of federal legislation that now requires random drug testing for transportation. He also provided depositions in civil suits that arose from the accident.

It was difficult for him, he said, but "it was a matter of making amends."

He was released in April 1992 and completed his supervised probation in September.

In prison, Mr. Gates entered a drug treatment program, and he says he has been sober for more than six years. He also took addiction-counseling courses offered in prison by Essex Community College.

Now a counselor

After a series of jobs painting houses and waxing cars, he began work in November as a midnight shift counselor at Oakview, helping patients through late-night crises.

"I felt so shameful for a whole lot of reasons, but I found that by trying to help others, I could help myself, too," he said.

Thomas G. Taylor, director of treatment at Oakview, said Mr. Gates has been "a real positive addition" to the staff. "He has his own program of recovery that he's real active in, and he's fairly open with the patients about his own life, where drug abuse took him and the shame and guilt he's had to live with."

He is also rebuilding his family.

"My daughters [now 14 and 15], were quite bitter at me for a while, for the shame I brought to the family," he said. "But we're resolving that. I think we get along pretty well now."

In 1987, Mr. Gates' life centered on getting high. "I had already lost my family and all the friends associated with my marriage. I had isolated myself to protect my right to do drugs and drink," he said.

He was a beer drinker, but the bars and their parking lots, he said, were also where he bought his marijuana, "the kind of high I liked best."

Although he said he had six to eight beers in a bar the night before the accident, he went home and slept well until 10:15 a.m., when Conrail called him to work.

'Disease of addiction'

"I felt good when I woke up," he said, and, contrary to suggestions by investigators, was "as sober as can be." But "the disease of addiction was still talking."

In his eagerness to get going so he could return to the bars and get high, he said, he skipped critical safety checks that would have shown that the alerter -- a whistle that warns the crew of signal changes -- had been silenced with duct tape.

"I didn't disable it, but I didn't take the time to find out what the problem was," Mr. Gates said. "Had I taken the time to do it properly, I wouldn't have been in front of that [Amtrak] train."

Mr. Gates said he hadn't planned on smoking pot at the controls that day, but he had done it before. "Probably more times than not," he said. "If I had it, I'd bring it on myself."

"When I was first hired, I had high ideals," Mr. Gates said. But other crew members would send him off on errands so they could drink or smoke marijuana. After a while, he said, "I wanted to belong, so I did what they were doing."

A joint, food, and tragedy

In the last minutes before the crash, Mr. Gates said, he and Mr. Cromwell passed the joint back and forth, then started lunch. Contrary to assertions by the letter writers, there was no drinking and no television to distract them. But there was conversation and "a relaxed, party-type of atmosphere."

"I must have been high," he added. "My perception of speed and distance and time were distorted."

The Conrail engines, traveling above the 60 mph limit, passed two wayside signals and a device that normally sets off a cab alarm. But they didn't notice and failed to activate the brakes until it was too late. The engines skidded through a closed switch and stalled squarely in the path of the 125-mph Amtrak passenger train.

While the crew's poor judgment and inattentiveness suggested impairment, it was never proven. Blood and urine tests showed only evidence of "recent" marijuana use. The National Transportation Safety Board said the pot smoking was the "probable cause," along with the Federal Railroad Administration's failure -- since corrected -- to require automatic stopping systems on Conrail freight trains using the busy Northeast Corridor.

Other causes listed

The board listed other contributing causes, including tampering with safety equipment by a prior crew.

Marijuana's potential for mayhem became startlingly apparent in a year-long, 1986 study at the Shock-Trauma Center in Baltimore, which handles the state's worst accident cases. The study found that 35 percent of trauma patients tested positive for marijuana -- half in combination with alcohol.

That doesn't prove marijuana was the cause. But Dr. Carl A. Soderstrom, director of physician education at Shock-Trauma, said it's a good bet. Given the well-documented effects of another mind-altering drug -- alcohol -- "if someone is using . . . marijuana, there's no reason to believe they're a better driver," he said.

At first, Mr. Gates did not believe he had been impaired. "But now, in hindsight and in recovery, I know I was. Then, I was in strong denial, a hallmark of the disease."

He suspects that those in the pro-legalization movement who downplay the role of marijuana in the accident are themselves in denial.

"That was me when I was still smoking," he said. "I always tried to shift the blame onto other people rather than deal with my own problems. I would tell my wife it was her fault. But it certainly couldn't be the drugs."

Today, in recovery, he can see his past more clearly, and his future.

"Hopefully I will finish my education and get certified as a chemical-dependency counselor," he said. "I still love the railroad, and wouldn't mind going back as an employee-assistance-program counselor."

The railroads, however, are unlikely to rehire him, and he said some rail workers still resent him for testimony he gave that helped bring about both random drug testing and crew licensing.

Despite those laws, Mr. Gates believes some train workers continue to abuse drugs and alcohol on the job. "I'm sure it still goes on," he said. "I know a lot of people who've been caught. I'm sorry, but I feel relieved that other people are safer, too. I think that outweighs anybody's right to privacy."

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