Essex, MD Amtrak Train Collision, Jan 1987



Essex, Md. (AP) -- A highspeed Amtrak passenger train collided with three Conrail locomotives and derailed Sunday, killing at least 12 people, injuring at least 160 and trapping passengers in the wreckage, authorities said.
It was the worst accident in Amtrak's history, and officials feared they would find more bodies in the Colonial, a train bound from Washington, D.C., for Boston and Springfield, Mass., with about 400 people aboard.
The impact left three of the 12 passenger cars piled atop each other, and the bottom-most car, a cafe car, remained out of rescuers' reach late Sunday.
"They're all twisted in a mess," said JAY MILLER, a Baltimore County police spokesman at the scene of the 1:30 p. m. accident, about seven miles east of Baltimore.
Gov. HARRY HUGHES, at a news conference, said 12 deaths had been confirmed.
Eight bodies had been pulled from the wreckage, Baltimore County fire Battalion Chief FRANK WILSON said at the same news conference. He said at least 78 people suffered serious injuries.
"We're working our way down. It's going to take some time. We've got to be very careful," WILSON said.
The worst previous wreck for Amtrak, which began operations in 1971, killed 11 people on June 10, 1971, in Salem, Ill.
Sunday's was the worst U. S. train accident since a commuter train accident in Chicago killed 45 people Oct. 30, 1972
The three Conrail diesel engines had apparently run a red light to enter the main line heading north, the same direction as the Amtrak train, officials said.
It was not immediately clear whether the freight engines had pulled completely onto the line before the collision or whether the passenger train had time to slow down before the crash, officials said.
"I don't know how quickly he (the Amtrak engineer) saw the equipment in front of him or what his line of vision was," said SUE MARTIN, Amtrak spokeswoman at the scene.
The Amtrak engineer was killed, and the Conrail engineer walked away from the crash said, MS. MARTIN. The Conrail fireman, the only other crew member on the three-diesel unit, suffered a broken leg, said Conrail spokesman BOB LIPKIND. The fate of other crew members was not immediately known, officials at the scene said.
A fire broke out in one car, but was extinguished, said Lt. BRUCE CONRAD. He said the fire's extent was not clear.
Authorities set up a triage center at a fire station, and eight helicopters from the state police and Air National Guard flew victims to hospitals, said CONRAD. MILLER said a temporary morgue was set up at the site.
About a dozen hospitals received the injured, said WILSON.
At least 160 people were taken to hospitals, said CHUCK JACKSON, a state police spokesman.
The accident blocked traffic on the busy Northeast corridor, delaying travel for thousands, said Amtrak spokesman JOHN JACOBSON. At least 12 northbound and 12 southbound trains were canceled, and no trains were running between Washington and Philadelphia, he said.
The Amtrak train normally would be traveling 110 mph at the collision site, where four tracks merge into two before a bridge over the Gunpowder River, said LARRY CASE, an Amtrak spokesman in Washington.
CASE said "preliminary indications" were that the freight locomotives were to have waited on a siding for the Amtrak train to pass, but instead passed a stop signal.
"Apparently the Conrail locomotive ran a red signal, but we're not sure of that," CASE said.
All 12 cars of the Amtrak train derailed as well as the two electric Amtrak locomotives, and five of the passengers cars toppled on their sides, he said.
"You were sitting there, and there were a few bangs, and then you were on the floor," said LARRY HABBER, 27, of New York City, who was in the fifth passdenger car from the front.
CAROL BOURNE, 30, also of New York City, said she helped pull a 4-year-old girl to safety. "She was screaming. I just grabbed her and got out of there. I couldn't look for my bags."
The collision ripped a four-foot section of the train's first car cleanly away. By late Sunday, one of the three cars that were stacked together had been removed, but rescuers had not been able to get to the bottom-most car, JACKSON said.
Residents living near the tracks quickly provided blankets and food to the passengers, MILLER said. National Guard troops supplied lighting as the rescue operation stretched past nightfall, and the Red Cross aided the operation, said WILSON, the fire chief.
Recorders that should reveal the speed of the trains and whether any brakes were applied were recovered from a Conrail locomotive and a switch, said Federal Railroad Administration administrator JOHN RILEY. A third recorder, presumably from an Amtrak engine, also was recovered, he said.
The Colonial, which can carry up to 800 passengers, originates in Newport News, Va., on weekdays. On Sundays, it starts in Washington, D.C., as train No. 94-494, said JACOBSON, the Amtrak spokesman.
When the Colonial reaches New Haven, Conn., it splits with the first three passenger cars continuing to Springfield, Mass., and the last nine continuing to Boston, said JACOBSON.
The three Conrail locomotives were bound from Baltimore to Harrisburg, Pa., as part of a normal movement of equipment within the system, said LIPKIND, the spokesman for the government-owned freight railroad.
Essex, a city of 43,700 people, is about seven miles east of Baltimore.

The Daily Intelligencer Doylestown Pennsylvania 1987-01-05