CAYCE, S.C. — An Amtrak passenger train hurtling through the early morning darkness Sunday slammed into a freight train parked along a siding in South Carolina, killing two Amtrak crew members and injuring more than 110 people, authorities said.
It was the third deadly wreck involving Amtrak in less than two months.
The Silver Star was en route from New York to Miami with nearly 150 people aboard around 2:45 a.m. when it struck a CSX train carrying automobiles at an estimated 59 mph, Gov. Henry McMaster said. The crash happened around a switchyard about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Columbia where trains are loaded and unloaded.
“The CSX was on the track it was supposed to be on,” while the question for investigators is how the Amtrak train ended up on the side track, McMaster said.
Amtrak President Richard Anderson appeared to point the finger at CSX, saying the signal system run by the freight railroad at that spot was down at the time, and CSX dispatchers were manually routing trains.
The only way the Amtrak train could have gotten onto the siding was for a switch to have been thrown, Anderson said.
CSX did not immediately return an email and telephone call.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the scene.
The force of the crash dislodged a seat and knocked it onto passenger Tronia Dorsey’s legs, said her son, Andre Neblett, who spoke with her. The 43-year-old woman, who escaped with minor scratches and bruises, described a terrifying scene inside the dark compartment, with people screaming and babies wailing, he said.
“It was chaos,” Andre Neblett said after driving in from North Carolina to retrieve his mother’s suitcase from a Red Cross shelter. “She said she was just waiting on somebody to get to her.”
The conductor and engineer aboard the Amtrak locomotive were killed. And 116 people were taken to four hospitals, according to the governor.
At least three patients were hospitalized in critical or serious condition, with nearly all the rest treated for minor injuries such as cuts, bruises and whiplash, authorities said.
Palmetto Health emergency room doctor Eric Brown said so many passengers were hurt that they were brought in on two buses, and a tent that had been set up as a waiting room to keep people separate from flu patients was turned into a triage area.
The locomotives of both trains were left crumpled, the Amtrak engine on its side. One car in the middle of the Amtrak train was snapped in half, forming a V off to one side of the tracks.
“It’s a horrible thing to see, to understand the force involved,” the governor said after touring the scene.
In a statement, Amtrak said that it was “deeply saddened” by the deaths and that it was cooperating fully with the NTSB. It also said CSX maintains all the tracks and signals where the accident happened and controls access to the sidings and yards.
Amtrak’s Anderson said the crash shows the importance of making sure that positive train control — GPS-based technology that can prevent accidents by automatically slowing or stopping locomotives — is installed on every train and track in the nation by the government’s end-of-the-year deadline.
The system is in place in the Northeast, but railroads that operate tracks used by Amtrak elsewhere in the U.S. have gotten extensions to the deadlines.
Many passengers were asleep when crash happened.
Elliot Smith told The State newspaper of Columbia that he was staying with a friend when they heard what sounded like a propane tank exploding.
“The sound was so loud, you instantly knew it was bad,” he said.
Amtrak officials gathered up luggage and other belongings and within hours put passengers aboard buses to their destinations.
Before being sent on their way, those who were not hurt were taken to a shelter set up at a middle school, and local businesses provided coffee and breakfast.
“We know they are shaken up quite a bit. We know this is like nothing else they have ever been through. So we wanted to get them out of the cold, get them out of the weather — get them to a warm place,” sheriff’s spokesman Adam Myrick said.
The dead were identified as engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida.
Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher’s voice caught as she released the names of the dead.
“Any time you have anything that happens like that, you expect more fatalities. But God blessed us, and we only had the two,” Fisher said.
On Wednesday, a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a strategy retreat slammed into a garbage truck at a crossing in rural Virginia, killing one person in the truck and injuring six others.
And on Dec. 18, an Amtrak train ran off the rails along a curve during its inaugural run on a route south of Tacoma, Washington, killing three people and injuring dozens. It was going nearly 80 mph, more than twice the speed limit.
After the latest crash, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the nation’s railroads must be made safer, declaring, “Business as usual must end.” He said proven technology, including positive train control, cannot continue to be delayed.
The latest wreck again raised criticism about the safety culture of the nation’s passenger railway.
With the string of crashes, “it’s becoming almost like an epidemic for Amtrak,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a University of Southern California engineering professor who has studied positive train control.
The worst rail tragedy in recent South Carolina history took place in 2005 when a freight engineer parked a train on a side track near a textile mill in Graniteville and forgot to flip the switch back to keep trains on the main track.
A freight train passing through went barreling down the side track and slammed into the parked train, killing nine people, most of them millworkers choked by chorine gas that leaked from a damaged tanker car.