ROCKVILLE -- When Amtrak engineer Donald Noble rounded a bend on a snowy evening last February, he was shocked to see another train on the same track barreling toward him.
Rather than slam on the brakes, Noble decided in that instant to try to drive his train through a crossover ahead and onto another track. But the maneuver didn't prevent the deaths of 11 people in the oncoming train.
"I thought their best chance would be if we could have a side-swipe instead of a head-on collision," Noble said yesterday as he told his story for the first time publicly. He was testifying before federal officials investigating the Feb. 16 collision of his Amtrak train and a Maryland Rail Commuter train in Silver Spring.
Day 1 of the hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board elicited some dramatic testimony but no definitive explanation of why the accident happened.
Witnesses decribed the crucial minutes before and after the fiery collision.
A survivor from the MARC train said a crew member ran through the car yelling, "Brace yourself, go for cover, get down on the ground," moments before the crash. Damien Benitez, 19, a student in a Job Corps program, also spoke of his frantic efforts to open two jammed doors before finding a hole that let him escape the burning car.
A woman passer-by told of hearing screams and seeing hands pounding on the same MARC car as she tried, unsuccessfully, to open an exit door. But billowing smoke and fire raced through the car, and soon the banging stopped, said the would-be rescuer, postal worker Joan Barr.
The three crew members aboard the MARC train and eight passengers -- all Job Corps trainees -- died, most from smoke inhalation and burns.
Safety officials are focusing on whether veteran MARC engineer Richard Orr saw a signal along the track that should have warned him to slow down. They also want to know why passengers had so much trouble escaping.
With Orr dead, officials might never know for sure whether error on his part or a signal malfunction caused the crash.
Yesterday, Robert Murray, a signal specialist with the Federal Railroad Administration, said the signal in question was operating properly before and after the crash.
"I see no known reason why that signal would show anything but [the correct warning,]" said William Goodman, director of the FRA's signal safety office. "Looking at the test results, I have a high degree of confidence that it was functioning properly."
FRA officials noted that the MARC train was outfitted with equipment that might have prevented the accident, but it could not be used.
The train had a so-called "automatic cab signal." When it's in use, the trackside signals appear in the cab of the locomotive as a reminder to the engineer.
But the railroad tracks were not wired to transmit the signal to the cab. In 1965, the federal government allowed the then-Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to remove the trackside equipment to spare the company the high maintenance costs.
Noble, the Amtrak engineer, appeared to be still haunted by the crash and the death of the Job Corps students. "I had no idea those kids were on that train," he said. "Normally, they're not. It's usually a dead train. It's empty."
Pub Date: 6/27/96