Memories still burn decades after wreck

Twenty years later, Robert Booker is still haunted by things he saw on a bitterly cold Sunday on the railroad tracks behind his home.

Booker, then 19, was hailed as a hero for what he did that day - Jan. 4, 1987 - when a northbound Amtrak Colonial slammed into an errant train of three Conrail freight locomotives near the small eastern Baltimore County community of Chase.


Sixteen people died. The total might have gone far higher if not for the efforts of Booker, his cousin Michael Cooper and other neighbors and first responders who rushed to a scene of blood and twisted metal to pull survivors from the smoking wreckage.

The crash, in which 175 people were injured, was at the time the deadliest in Amtrak history. Caused when a Conrail engineer who was under the influence of marijuana sped through a warning signal, the wreck led to significant changes in how railroads operate and prompted widespread drug testing in transportation industries.


Cliff Black, a spokesman for Amtrak, said that after the crash the Federal Railroad Administration required all trains in the Northeast Corridor to be equipped with automatic stop systems that can take control of a locomotive away from a human operator if it passes a signal at an excessive speed.

Those changes took time, but the effect on the neighborhoods surrounding the crash site was immediate. National news coverage focused on the kindness and concern shown by neighbors toward survivors and the emergency workers and journalists who converged on the scene.

As a result of their efforts, Booker, Cooper and other Chase residents were invited to the White House and congratulated by President Ronald Reagan. But the honors can't keep the memories from returning year after year.

"It seems like the closer [the anniversary] gets, whether I think about it or not, I tend to get images and see things from that day. It's kind of distressing," said Booker, now a 39-year-old crane operator at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The mental pictures include that of a man, crushed between two cars but still alive and with his hair on fire.

To this day, neither Booker nor Mike Cooper, now 37, will board a passenger train.

"I won't even get on a MARC train," said Cooper. He said he tries to block out the memories. "I try not to dwell on it. It happened and there's nothing I can do about it."

Booker and Cooper are two of many who vividly recall what happened that day just south of the bridge that carries the tracks over the Gunpowder River.


James B. Steele Jr., 64, still puts his left hand forward when anyone wants to shake hands. He still feels pain in his right thumb from an injury he received that day. Steele, then a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was rushed to the Maryland Shock-Trauma Center with multiple injuries. He counts himself immeasurably lucky because his wife and daughter also survived in an Amtrak car where 13 of 25 occupants died.

"We just couldn't get over how we lived just because we happened to select the right seat," said Steele, who has won many of journalism's top awards in partnership with Donald L. Barlett. They now work for Vanity Fair.

Dr. Ameen Ramzy, 58, was a Shock-Trauma surgeon who reported to the scene after hearing the first emergency calls going out over his Baltimore County Fire Department radio. He found train cars stacked three high from the force of the impact.

Now practicing in Portland, Ore., Ramzy recalls "how surreal it was on this crisp Sunday afternoon in January."

"I remember one of the air horns from one of the engines being blasted repeatedly," he said. It was warning first responders to back away, as officials worried that the cars would shift and injure the rescuers.

To Ramzy would fall the most difficult cases - not the success stories. He recalls spending most of his time treating four patients who were trapped in the train and critically injured.


"Three of those who were badly injured ... died while they were still entrapped," he said. "One survived and died in the hospital some days later."

In the weeks and months that followed, a story emerged of serious negligence on the part of the Conrail engineer, who later admitted he was high on marijuana when he skipped the safety checks that would have shown that an alarm had been disabled. It would have warned of the approaching passenger train.

Ricky Gates, the engineer, served four years in prison for his role in the crash and later became an addiction counselor.

The wreck and subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation led to a number of reforms in rail operations.

In 1991 - prompted in large part by the Chase crash - Congress authorized mandatory random drug-testing for all employees in "safety-sensitive" jobs in industries regulated by the federal Department of Transportation.

Amtrak also adopted changes in response to findings that some passengers might have been injured by luggage that spilled out of racks and went hurtling through the car. Black said the railroad installed bulkheads on the racks to keep that from happening again.


The crash remained Amtrak's worst until 1993, when 47 people died when a train plunged into a bayou near Mobile, Ala. Maryland was again be the site of a fatal Amtrak crash in 1996, when 11 people were killed when one of the company's passenger trains smashed into a commuter train in Silver Spring.

Along the track in Chase yesterday, the scene was a striking contrast from that day 20 years ago. The weather was balmy and the scene was quiet except for the occasional whoosh of an Amtrak Acela rushing by.

Mike Caldwell, an Amtrak signal crew foreman who was working nearby, pointed out a freight train resting at a signal where the Conrail train should have stopped the day of the crash. Caldwell, 49, recalled that he was at home in Rising Sun that day when he saw the first reports of the crash on TV. He called his supervisor and volunteered to rush to the site.

"Once you got here, your stomach just turned. It was the most devastating thing I've seen in my 30 years down here," he said. "It was a horrific scene."

Caldwell said he didn't leave the crash site for three or four days, sometimes catching some sleep while propped against the trees lining the track. "You didn't worry about pay, you didn't worry about nothing, you just tried to help these people out," he said.

Gary Warren, who was the Baltimore County Fire Department's medical commander at the scene, said the Amtrak crash is still being used as a case study in effective disaster response.


"The reason is how the members of the professional and volunteer fire departments and the community people got together," said Warren, 54, now chief of training for the fire and rescue department at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

It was, he said, "a very sad but a very proud moment" in his career.

For Ramzy, the loss of the four trapped passengers remains engraved in his memory.

"I expect that in some way or another it always will," he said.