Investigators probe the cause of an Amtrak train derailment outside Washington that left 97 hurt

Tuesday, July 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KENSINGTON, Md. (AP) _ Investigators recovered data recorders from the wreckage of an Amtrak train that they say should provide clues into why the train jumped off the tracks outside the nation's capital, leaving 97 passengers injured.

The crash sent bleeding passengers crawling out windows and left a 150-yard stretch of damaged track along the accident site, including twisted rails and ties ripped from the gravel bed. Six of the train's 13-cars lay on their side.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators, and an expert said they would try to determine whether heat had caused the track to buckle. Temperatures were in the mid-90s at the time of the accident.

``When the track gets up over 100 degrees, you have things called heat kinks. You have to watch your track very carefully,'' former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz said.

Carol Carmody, vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Monday evening at the scene of the accident that two event recorders had been recovered from the train.

The recorders are similar to flight data recorders, or ``black boxes,'' on airplanes. They will provide information such as the speed of the train and what the engineer was doing, such as braking or throttling, Carmody said.

The train, the Capitol Limited, was traveling from Chicago to the nation's capital with 173 passengers and crew members when it went off the tracks at about 1:55 p.m. Monday, authorities said. The train was about 10 miles from its destination.

Six people were trapped in the cars, but all were freed within an hour, Montgomery County Fire Department spokesman Oscar Garcia said. They were reported to be in critical condition.

Robert Bailey, of Capitol Heights, Md., said he and his wife crawled through a window after the car they were riding in turned over.

``Lots of screaming and hollering. It was pandemonium in there,'' said Bailey, who was taking the train home after a vacation in Michigan.

The accident comes as Amtrak is trying to emerge from its worst budget crisis in its 31-year history. The private company recently required federal help to close a $200 million budget gap that threatened to close the railroad.

Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., visited the scene and met with passengers at Kensington's Town Hall. ``It couldn't have come at worse time for Amtrak,'' she said of the derailment.

By Monday evening, rescue workers had searched the train three times and were matching the names of rescued passengers to the manifest, said Bill Dulaney, another Montgomery County Fire Department spokesman.

The train's engineer will be tested for drugs and alcohol use, as is routine.

The track is owned, operated and maintained by freight railroad CSX Corp. Company spokesman Dan Murphy said the speed limit on that stretch is 70 mph and early indications are that the train was going 57 to 60 mph.

He said the section of track where the derailment happened was last inspected visually at 5 p.m. Sunday. He said the last train that passed through before the wreck was a freight train that went by about 45 minutes earlier and reported nothing unusual.

Amtrak has struggled to maintain full service this year because nearly 100 of its cars and locomotives are damaged and out of service. Low on cash, Amtrak has not been able to get the cars back on the tracks.

``The equipment supply was maxed out as it was,'' said Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Van Veen. It's possible some trains will have to run with fewer cars until repairs are made, she said.