By Randall Hill
CAYCE, S.C. (Reuters) – (This Feb. 4 story corrects first paragraph to drop erroneous reference to three fatal crashes in as many months. Amtrak has had four fatal crashes since December. The error first occurred in UPDATE 3 of the Feb. 4 story)
An Amtrak passenger train that was diverted onto a side track slammed into a parked freight train in South Carolina on Sunday, killing two crew members and injuring at least 116 others in the railroad’s fourth fatal crash since December.
Amtrak Train 91, carrying nine crew members and 136 passengers, was traveling from New York to Miami when it hit the CSX Corp freight train that was stopped on a side track, or siding, at about 2:35 a.m. local time (0735 GMT).
The section of track was operated by CSX and the Amtrak train was diverted onto the siding at a switch where a padlock had been attached to steer train traffic that way, Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Board, told a news conference.
“Key to this investigation is learning why the switch was lined that way,” he said, calling the damage to the locomotives “catastrophic.” An NTSB investigation team was at the site.
Amtrak engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida, were killed, Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher told reporters. Autopsies were underway, she said.
Two of the 116 people injured were in critical condition after the wreck, which occurred about 5 miles (8 km) southwest of the state capital Columbia.
“It’s a horrible thing to see, to understand what force was involved,” South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster told reporters. “The first engine of the freight train was torn up, and the single engine of the passenger train is barely recognizable.”
Amtrak said it was “deeply saddened” by the deaths. It said CSX owns and controls the dispatching of all trains, including the signal systems that control access to sidings and yards, Amtrak said in a statement.
Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson said the passenger train hit the tail end of the CSX train. That train had two locomotives and 34 empty auto racks used to transport cars, the NTSB said.
The passenger train’s locomotive was left lying on its side, and the first car was bent and also derailed, although it remained upright, images from the scene showed.
At least four of the freight train’s cars were crumpled, looking like crushed tin foil, but remained on the tracks.
The passenger train was part of Amtrak’ Silver Star Service. Officials said some 5,000 gallons of fuel leaked as a result of the collision, but that there was no threat to public safety.
U.S. President Donald Trump received regular updates on the crash while at his resort in Palm Beach, Florida. “My thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims involved in this mornings (sic) train collision in South Carolina,” he tweeted. “Thank you to our incredible First Responders for the work they’ve done!”
McMaster said he had been told the Amtrak train was traveling at about 59 miles (95 km) per hour upon impact.
The NTSB did not release details on the speed at which the Amtrak train was traveling.
In December, three people were killed when an Amtrak passenger train derailed in Washington state. The engineer later told the NTSB he had misread a signal and tried to brake before the accident.
In late January, an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of the U.S. Congress killed one person in a garbage truck with which it collided in Virginia.
A Federal Railroad Administration Investigative team was also on the scene in South Carolina to help establish what happened.
“It is important to understand the factors that contributed to this tragic accident and how all stakeholders can ensure a safe and reliable rail system going forward,” the U.S. Department of Transportation said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina, Ayesha Rascoe in West Palm Beach, Florida, Barbara Goldberg and Renita Young in New York; Writing by Barbara Goldberg and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Jason Neely, Lisa Von Ahn and Daniel Wallis)