Hastings, NE Amtrak Crew Car Fire, Feb 1988


Hastings, Neb. (AP) -- Passengers aboard Amtrak's California Zephyr complained that they received no warnings or instructions from crew members when a smoky fire caused by a defective heater in a crew car killed one man early Saturday and injured 16 people.
"It's a miracle that there wasn't some kind of panic," said Sara Bentley, of Fremont, Neb., a passenger in the first coach car behind the passenger sleeper, which was coupled to the crew car.
"I think the worst thing was that they didn't let anyone in our car know whether we were in danger. We couldn't find out if our car was safe."
Amtrak spokesman John Jacobsen said the fire aboard the 14-car westbound train carrying 294 passengers and a crew of 18 was reported about 3 a.m. as the train was pulling into Hastings for a scheduled stop. Hastings Fire Chief Jim Mitera said the blaze was under control about 90 minutes later.
An electrical short in the wiring of the crew car heating unit caused the fire, Deputy State Fire Marchal Chuck Hoffman said at an afternoon news conference. He said the heater was in a storage area under the crew sleeping quarters and that the short ignited the car's wood floor.
State Fire Marshal Wally Barnett said the wiring showed wear and tear but did not say Amtrack was negligent.
Adams County Attorney Gary Anderberg said an autopsy showed that the Amtrack employee died of smoke inhalation.
Amtrak investigators, who did not attend the news conference, were on the scene by late Saturday morning.
The crew car and the passenger sleeper were disconnected from the Zephyr, which travels from Chicago to Salt Lake City, then splits into sections that proceed to Oakland, Calif., Los Angeles and Seattle, Jacobsen said from his office in Washington, D.C. The rest of the train pulled out of Hastings about 9:30 a.m. after some crew members were checked at the hospital and returned, he said.
ROBERT BALLARD, his wife, HELEN, and 11-year-old grandson ROBBY were in a deluxe sleeper en route to a Colorado ski trip. He said they opened the compartment door and found the hallway filled with smoke.
"We just woke up and smelled smoke," said BALLARD, of Flint, Mich.
MRS. BALLARD, who suffers from asthma, was admitted to the hospital for observation, her husband said.
"The thing I can't understand is we heard no smoke detectors going off," BALLARD said.
Jacobsen said there are no smoke detectors on the train because "no one has invented one that works reliably." Because smoke detectors are so sensitive, the constant vibrations of trains would set them off, he said.
Jacobsen said he could recall only two train fires and that because they are so rare there has not been a market for smoke detectors designed for trains.
Jacobsen said the rest of the train was not in any danger from the fire, and that there is no fuel or propane in any of the passenger cars.
BENTLEY and another passenger, MIKE CASUSCELLI, also of Fremont, said no crew members told them to evacuate, but they and a number of other passengers decided to leave the train after seeing fire trucks arrive. Some crew members and passengers from the sleeping cars milled around outside the train, many of the men shirtless or wearing only long underwear.
"Normally, you don't want passengers to get off as long as the rest of the train is not in danger," Jacobsen said. "It is safer to keep people on the train."
A female crew member ran through BENTLY'S car, asking passengers for blankets for the injured. She said the woman's face was covered with soot and she was shoeless.
The crew car is designed for Amtrak service attendants who are with the train from the beginning to the end of the trip. Jacobsen said it was divided into two sections, one for baggage and one with small bedrooms.
The victim, identified as CESAR ARGUELLES, 70, of Chicago, was one of seven crew members on the car, Jacobsen said.
Twelve people, including at least six members of the crew and three passengers, remained in Mary Lanning Hospital, where they were being treated for smoke inhalation, Anderberg said. Officials gave conflicting accounts of who the other three were. All were listed in satisfactory or good condition.
Four crew members from the train and an ambulance attendant were treated and released, according to Jacobsen and hospital spokesman Bob Weber.

Daily Intelligencer Doylestown Pennsylvania 1988-02-21