Braking too late Both trains in motion at impact

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Investigators combing the wreckage of a rail collision in Silver Spring that killed 11 people Friday night -- including two Baltimoreans -- concluded yesterday that both trains were moving when the crash occurred, despite earlier reports that a commuter train was stopped.

In addition, investigators said the engineer of the Maryland Rail Commuter train slammed on the brakes just before it and the Chicago-bound Amtrak Capitol Limited collided.

The MARC train had been traveling at 63 mph after it left the Kensington station and slowed to 40 mph just 15 seconds before the crash. MARC trains are permitted to travel up to 70 mph on that stretch of track.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators said last night that they were considering engineer error as a possible cause of the crash.

The fiery collision between the Amtrak train, with 164 passengers and 18 crew members aboard, and the three-car MARC train, whose passengers included 17 youths and young adults from the Harpers Ferry Job Corps Center in West Virginia, occurred about 5:45 p.m. in a snowstorm. In addition to the fatalities, there were 26 injuries.

The crash was Maryland's worst since Jan. 4, 1987, when Amtrak's Boston-bound Colonial Express hit three Conrail diesel locomotives in Chase in eastern Baltimore County. Sixteen people were killed and 170 injured.

The 11 bodies, which officials believe are those of eight Job Corps youths and three MARC crew members, were taken to the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore, where autopsies were performed yesterday. Positive identification of the bodies could take days, officials said. "The identity of these victims is going to take place with dental records and DNA," said Lt. Michael Garvey of Montgomery County's Department of Fire and Rescue.

The U.S. Department of Labor released the names of eight missing Job Corps youths last night. They included two Baltimoreans, Dante Swain, 18, and Carlos M. Byrd, 18. Two other Marylanders -- Lakeisha Marshall, 17, of Capitol Heights and Claudius Kessoon, 20, of Landover, both in Prince George's County -- were listed.

Also missing and presumed dead are Diana Hanvichid, 17, of Woodbridge, Va.; Thomas Loatman, 23, of Vienna, Va.; Karis Rudder, 17, of Elmhurst, N.Y.; and Michael Woodson, 16, of Philadelphia.

"Several young men and women who died were Job Corps trainees," President Clinton said yesterday from New Hampshire. They were working hard to better themselves, and we salute their lives as we mourn their deaths."

Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who visited the crash site, called it "a terrible tragedy."

"That there were young people who were killed makes it all the more poignant," he said. "These young people had the deck stacked against them and yet had made a decision to make something of their lives."

Montgomery County fire officials had originally said 12 people were killed in the accident, but they revised the count to 11 yesterday. Fire officials said the first car of the MARC train, where the fatalities occurred, was engulfed in flames when emergency workers arrived Friday night. The darkness and condition of the bodies made it difficult to determine the number of fatalities.

The cause of the collision still eluded investigators last night.

The crash occurred about eight miles north of Union Station at a switch called Georgetown Junction. The MARC train, which originated in Brunswick in Frederick County and was bound for Union Station in Washington, consisted of three cars being pushed from behind by an engine. The MARC passenger cars bore the brunt of the collision.

The Amtrak train, which left Union Station about 20 minutes behind schedule, was traveling west. It had been routed onto the same track as the eastbound MARC train so the Amtrak train could pass a slow-moving CSX freight train. The Amtrak train was in the process of crossing over on a switch to a parallel set of tracks when the accident occurred, the NTSB said.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, MARC officials said that the Amtrak train, which was being led by two 130-ton diesel locomotives, had the right of way and that the MARC train was stopped at a signal. But the NTSB said yesterday that the trains' data recorders indicated otherwise.

"The data recorders indicate that both trains were in motion at the time of the accident," said John Goglia, the NTSB official in charge of the investigation.

Anthony Brown, a spokesman for the state Mass Transit Administration, which operates the MARC trains, said last night that he had heard those reports but could not confirm them. "We still haven't gotten that information" from the NTSB, Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Goglia said investigators, who numbered 15 yesterday and would be increased to 75, are looking at whether the signal system was working properly or whether one of the trains ran a red signal. If the signal system was working correctly, the MARC train operator would have seen a yellow signal telling him to slow to 30 mph and to be prepared to stop at the next red signal. Under these conditions, the Amtrak train would have been cleared to continue at 30 mph, which investigators have determined it did.

The question for investigators is whether the signal was working properly, and if it was, whether the MARC operator somehow missed it. The MARC engineer is presumed to be among those killed.

Investigators were able to determine that although the MARC engineer slammed on his emergency brakes about 1,100 feet before the collision, the Amtrak operator never applied his, Mr. Goglia said. "Nor would you want to. He wants to clear his track before he hits what's coming at him."

The engineer and assistant engineer of the Amtrak train have taken drug and alcohol tests, but the results have not been received. The CSX dispatcher who electronically monitored the track's switches from Jacksonville, Fla., was not tested because Federal Railroad Administration regulations do not require it.

At the crash site yesterday, crowds of people braved freezing temperatures to catch a glimpse of the wreckage. The back of the Amtrak train remained on the tracks, but its front had collapsed from the crash's impact like an accordion.

The first MARC car that was hit gently listed on the side of a snowy hill, most of its windows broken. The car was scorched and its roof sliced open. The locomotive had a hole in the middle of its face.

John L. MacArthur, 35, of Silver Spring was sitting nearby with a friend, doing what almost everyone else there was doing: speculating on how this happened.

He said it was simple curiosity that brought him to the scene. "When I was a kid I used to play on these tracks," he said.

For Information

For information about passengers and possible victims in the crash, call Amtrak at (800) 523-9101 or MARC at (800) 325-RAIL.

MAJOR ACCIDENTS

A list of major train accidents in the United States in the past dozen eyars. The worst train wreck in U.S. history occurred July 9, 1918, in Nashville, Tenn., and killed 101 people.

Nov. 12, 1983 -- Marshall, Texas, four killed.

July 7, 1984 -- Williston, Vt., five killed.

Jan. 19, 1985 -- Buda, Ill. (car-train), four killed.

Aug. 2, 1985 -- Westminster, Colo., five killed.

Sept. 8, 1985 -- San Jose, Calif. (car-train), seven killed.

Jan. 4, 1987 -- Chase, Md., 16 killed.

July 31, 1991 -- Camden, S.C., eight killed.

Sept. 22, 1993 -- Saraland, Ala., 47 killed.

Oct. 25, 1995 -- Fox River Grove, Ill., (car-school bus), seven killed.

Feb. 9, 1996 - Secaucus, N.J., three killed.

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