- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

CRESCENT CITY, Fla. (AP) The engineer of an Amtrak Auto Train that derailed in Florida, killing four persons and injuring more than 150 others, tried to stop the train when he saw that the tracks ahead appeared to be misaligned, a federal official said yesterday.
The engineer hit the train's emergency brakes about an hour into its trip Thursday from central Florida to Virginia. The two engines and first two cars stayed on the track, but 14 of the 16 passenger cars and seven others in the 40-car train derailed.
Investigators planned to look at the wheels of a coal train that had passed on the same tracks shortly before for any signs of damage, said George Black of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Sharon Mahoney, general manager of the Auto Train service, was on the train when it went off the tracks in a remote, heavily wooded area of north Florida.
She wasn't injured and was helping direct the rescue efforts, said Bill Schulz, an Amtrak spokesman in Washington.
The train, a favorite among tourists traveling between Washington and Orlando's theme parks, was going 56 mph in a 60 mph zone when the cars derailed, Mr. Black said.
Four other trains had just passed through the area, apparently without trouble.
As NTSB investigators did their work yesterday, a heavy-duty switching engine began the arduous process of clearing the busy track by moving about a half dozen upright train cars away from the wreckage.
The death toll had been reported at six Thursday but was revised downward yesterday by investigators and medical officials. , said Lt. Bill Leeper of the Florida Highway Patrol.
It could not be immediately determined why the train derailed, officials said.
The track had been inspected hours before the crash and had been in good condition.
The train left Sanford after 4 p.m. and derailed about an hour later 60 miles north of Orlando. Amtrak said the train, which carries passengers as well as their autos between Sanford, Fla., and Lorton, Va., was carrying 440 passengers and 28 crew members.
James Pierce had just settled into his sleeper car for a 16-hour trip to Washington when the train screeched off the rails and slammed into pine trees lining the tracks.
"It felt like it was sliding to the left and suddenly it just toppled," said Mr. Pierce, an Amtrak attendant from Huntingtown, Md.
Mr. Pierce said he grabbed the sleeper car's curtains when the train left the track, and within seconds he found himself hanging in the air. After the train came to a stop, Mr. Pierce said, he removed the emergency window and began pulling people out of the cabin.
"Suddenly you could feel the brakes scraping," said David Sheldon, 71, who was traveling with his wife, Sylvia, from Boca Raton.
Mr. Sheldon said it took about 30 seconds for the train to come to a stop.
"It seemed like forever," he said.
Robert Dodd Sr., 74, of Willingboro, N.J., said he and his wife were sitting down to dinner when the train derailed.
"The girl said, 'Do you want white or red wine?'" Mr. Dodd said. "At first I said, 'White, no give me red' and that's the last thing I remember."
Rescue officials, using ladders to reach the overturned cars, helped survivors out of the train and reached through the windows to get to those still trapped inside.
In all, 159 passengers were taken to hospitals.
By yesterday morning, 27 remained hospitalized, including a 73-year-old woman in critical condition in Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville.


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