WASHINGTON -- The nation's worst train wreck in decades occurred just seconds after a towboat pilot, lost in a predawn fog, mistook a railroad bridge for a barge, then inadvertently rammed it as Amtrak's Sunset Limited was bearing down on the damaged span, federal investigators believe.
The bridge collapsed as the train sped onto it, the investigators said, causing three engines and four cars to plunge into Big Bayou Canot near Mobile, Ala., at 2:50 a.m. on Sept. 22, killing 47 people.
The sequence of events, included in a report issued Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board, occupied a much narrower time period than previously disclosed. Earlier accounts suggested that 12 minutes elapsed from the time the bridge was struck until the crash occurred.
According to the report, the towboat pilot, Willie Odom, told investigators "he felt a thud" and then "heard a 'swoosh' sound from left to right, and saw fire seconds later."
Recreating the events leading up to the Amtrak crash, the towboat pilot told the federal safety officials that he believed he was operating on the Mobile River in heavy fog when radar picked up an object across the waterway that he thought was another towboat and barges. He said he headed slowly toward the object, intending to pull alongside, when one of the six barges his boat was pushing struck the object.
The impact awakened the towboat's captain, Andrew Stabler, who was then summoned by a deckhand. The captain took control of the vessel, saw fire erupt ahead, secured his barges and rescued seven people in the water. Earlier reports suggested that the captain had been at the helm at the time of the collision.
The board also said the train appeared to be traveling at 72 mph, 2 miles above the speed limit. An Amtrak spokesman said this would have had no impact on the accident.
This account of the events leading to the wreck of the Sunset Limited was gathered by the National Transportation Safety Board in interviews with the four crew members of the boat, the MV Mauvilla.