Investigators Looking into What Caused Amtrak Accident

Monday, March 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NODAWAY, Iowa (AP) - Investigators are trying to determine if shattered rails found amid 3,000 feet of torn-up roadbed and twisted passenger cars may have caused the Amtrak crash that killed one person and injured 96 others.

The California Zephyr's engineer told investigators he was operating the train at 52 mph, well below the posted limit of 79 mph, on a straight stretch of track in southwest Iowa when he felt a tug late Saturday.

``He applied the brakes with an emergency application and brought the train to a stop. However, at the same time the train was derailing behind him,'' federal crash investigator Ted Turpin told reporters Sunday.

The derailment spread a zigzagging trail of silver-colored cars along a muddy embankment.

The train was traveling from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., with 210 people aboard when passengers were slammed into the sides of their cars shortly before midnight.

``It just shook and shook again, and everybody screamed,'' said Shaheda Ula of Laramie, Wyo., who suffered a broken hip. ``I don't remember anything after that.''

The National Transportation Safety Board has requested records from the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad, which owns and maintains the track, on the number and weight of trains that pass through the area.

That stretch of track is visually inspected three times a week, and is examined monthly with an ultrasound device that can discover internal defects called transverse fissures. The fissures can occur when the steel in rail is forged, Turpin said.

``It starts out as a small, little nucleus. And then it opens and starts to break inside the rail,'' he said. ``You'd never see it from the outside.''

He said investigators found pieces of broken rail, but hadn't determined if the steel fractured before or during the derailment. Broken rails will undergo laboratory tests, he said.

Investigators will also look at the stability of the bed and whether saturation from melting snow was a factor.

``Something appears to have been wrong back in the train between the interface of the wheels and the rails, something we still haven't determined that,'' Turpin said.

Passenger Joseph Conn of Hobart, Ind., said he got off the train and found one of the front cars overturned and another dangling from a 20-foot-high embankment.

He described ``shredded ties, shredded rails, torn up ballast on the roadway, just a torn-up mess.''

About 3,000 feet of track was ripped up, Turpin said. The line was reopened to train traffic early Monday, said Burlington Northern road master Bob Jansen.

Jim Anderson, who lives less than a mile from the site, said he was in bed when the derailment startled him and his dog.

``I thought my furnace blowed up. I heard a bunch of grinding and then boom,'' he said. ``That dog of mine jumped out of bed and started growling at the window.''

Relatives said the passenger killed was Stella Riehl, 69, of Widefield, Colo. She was returning home with the ashes of her brother, who had died last week in Des Moines.

Turpin said 96 people were hurt, including three passengers who were seriously injured. At least 80 have been released after treatment. Twelve Amtrak employees were among the injured, including a worker hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

Uninjured passengers were taken by bus to Omaha, Neb., where Amtrak arranged shelter and alternate transportation.

Jacob Schmucker, 27, of LaGrange, Ind., was continuing a trip to San Diego with his wife and four friends.

``I'm going back on the train,'' Schmucker said. ``Hopefully it won't happen again.''