February 17, 1996

Survivors thought
they would die.

Switching tracks:
What went wrong?

Diagram of the disaster

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Inside Page A13


Rescuers Recall Horror: Feb. 18, 1996

Md. To Fix Doors: Feb. 22, 1996

Feds Urge Action: March 13, 1996

Crew Partly to Blame: June 18, 1997

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MARC, Amtrak Trains Collide,
Killing 12

By Marianne Kyriakos and Bill Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 17, 1996; Page A01
Firefighters look for passengers in one of the derailed cars of the MARC commuter train. (AP Photo)

At least 12 people were killed and many more injured yesterday when a Maryland commuter train bound for Union Station collided with an outgoing Amtrak train and erupted in flames on a snow-swept stretch of track in Silver Spring.

All of the fatalities and the worst of the injuries occurred on the four-car MARC commuter train, whose passenger cars were hit by the much larger engines of the Chicago-bound Capitol Limited. The crash came moments after the Amtrak train crossed into a residential area of Montgomery County with 150 passengers aboard about 5:30 p.m., authorities said.

It initially appeared that the MARC train had run past a signal at which it should have stopped to wait for the Amtrak train to cross over to another track. Deputy Transportation Secretary Mort Downey said the collision clearly took place past the signal. Asked if the MARC train likely had run through a red signal, he said, "It certainly looks like that happened."

Just before the impact, MARC conductors went through the cars shouting to passengers that a crash was imminent and that they should get on the floor, several riders said.

"We switched tracks at Point of Rocks [in Frederick County] because they said up ahead was a stalled train. We got to Rockville and everything was okay," said MARC passenger Kelvin Williams, 19.

Bleeding from the head, the Seat Pleasant resident was the first survivor witnesses saw emerge from the wreckage near 16th Street, crawling through a jagged crack beside a door on the second car.

"Then three conductors came out screaming, `Everybody get down!' And then we crashed.

"Everybody was crying and screaming."

Montgomery County fire department spokesman Denise Fox confirmed that 12 bodies were found on the MARC train. Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell said "quite a few" passengers were still missing about 8:30 p.m., but it was unclear how many had wandered away before rescue teams converged on the area.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said that one of those killed may have been a crew member on the MARC train and that all of the fatalities appeared to take place in the lead car, which was a passenger coach.

The MARC train, which originated in Brunswick, was being pushed by a single locomotive, placing the 60-ton passenger car at the point of impact. The first MARC car was badly mangled and seared by Amtrak locomotive diesel fuel that ignited. The second car was crushed like an accordion by the 130-ton Amtrak locomotives. Officials said most of the injuries were burns and blunt trauma.

The Amtrak train was traveling from Union Station, and it departed at 5:25 p.m. for Chicago with 175 passengers and crew, said Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black.

Immediately next to the wreckage is a track signal, which will loom importantly in the investigation. The crash occurred at a switching point, where the MARC train was supposed to wait for the Amtrak to pass.

Some Amtrak officials, who declined to be identified, said the Amtrak train already had begun rolling through the crossover to the other track, when the MARC train struck it at an angle. However, federal investigators had not yet confirmed how the collision occurred.

Witnesses said some elements of the damage -- one Amtrak locomotive had turned 180 degrees, and the sides of the MARC cars had been sheared away -- suggested the collision had not been head-on. There were conflicting reports whether the MARC train had stopped when the impact occurred or was moving.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Mass Transit Administration said the MARC train had stopped at the signal when the accident happened. NTSB representatives said they recovered two event recorders from the Amtrak train and one event recorder from the MARC train that will help establish the trains' speeds and provide other important information. An event recorder on the switch also will be examined.

"I was listening to my Walkman when the conductor came running from the front of the car and said, `We're about to get hit!' " said James Young, 19, a passenger in the lead MARC car. By positioning himself against a wall he escaped with a few scrapes, he said, but he was not sure how he got out.

Firefighters hose down the wreckage at the accident site in Silver Spring just north of Washington.
Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post
"I saw flames and smoke, and the car was still moving," he said. "I was about the fifth person out. I ended up on the ground, but don't ask me how. I felt a lot of things, but all I know is I couldn't see anything."

On the Amtrak train, the two locomotives and four baggage cars derailed, but many of the passengers riding farther back on the two coaches, two sleepers, a diner and lounge cars felt only a violent lurch.

"There was a jolt, a severe jolt. I went flying forward," said Dale G. Johnson, 47, of Portland, Ore., who was headed to Chicago. "We thought we hit something or that we were in a derailment.

"It wasn't frightening because we didn't realize the extent of what happened to the MARC train. We didn't feel a big sensation."

Some 200 rescue workers coped with the new snow, billowing smoke and passengers trapped in cars pitched at a 45-degree angle.

"When we got here the train was on fire," said a Montgomery firefighter coughing from the smoke he had inhaled. "The side of one was gone. It's all peeled away. It's gone, it's like it's not there.

"It's two cars," the firefighter said. "One is on its side at an angle, and inside one of the cars are bodies all over the place. There was one body outside the train. Dead. He was all tangled up and cut up. He was against one of those big wheels of the train."

The other bodies "were in the middle, in the aisle," he said. "I guess they were trying to get out."

Rescue workers set up an impromptu emergency ward for the injured in the lobby of the Park Sutton condominiums, where the injured included the Amtrak engineer and the train fireman.

"I've been better," said the engineer, D.C. Noble of Middletown, Md. His co-worker, fireman Joe Fradangelo, of Fredericksburg, Va., was bleeding from the mouth.

Neighbors who live along the tracks poured onto the scene with blankets after hearing the impact and seeing smoke that billowed from the two huge diesel engines. Physicians converged on the scene after seeing news reports, and more than three dozen emergency vehicles clogged the scene.

Rescue personnel transport an injured person to an ambulance.
(Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post)
At least one couple on the Amtrak train walked to Holy Cross Hospital, which treated 14 minor injuries. Four patients were treated for minor injuries at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park. Three were admitted to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda as of 8:15 p.m., according to Mary McKenna, the hospital's administrative director of surgical and emergency services. One was listed in critical condition from smoke inhalation. The other two were listed in fair condition.

Witnesses described what seemed to them to be a head-on collision.

Thirteen-year-old Geoffrey Shaffer, a seventh-grader at Sligo Middle School, had just hung up a phone when he saw the collision from the patio door of his family's apartment.

"I saw a train go this way and a train go that way," Geoffrey said. "Then I saw a big explosion. Wheels were screeching. I could see the cloud of smoke and fire. I didn't know what was happening. I was about to jump behind my couch."

Several MARC passengers said their train, which originated in Brunswick, had switched tracks in Point of Rocks.

"We switched over to another track. The conductor told us we had to pass an accident on another track," said passenger Damian Benitez, 19, a Job Corps member from Philadelphia. "Then I felt the collision. The smoke came quick. I was trying to open some side doors. The only place I could get out is where the train was cracked in half.

"There was fire and the car filled up with smoke. When I got out, I climbed under the train. A kid next to me screamed, `All my friends are on that train!' "

Among the riders on the MARC train was a group from the Job Corps Center in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., traveling to Washington on a weekend pass. The teenagers learn a variety of trades, including carpentry and bricklaying, at the federal job training facility. Some were studying for their high school equivalency diplomas.

In his eighth-floor apartment in the Park Sutton, Chester Chandler, 41, was having his Friday night beer when he heard the familiar sound of an approaching train, then "a crash like a war bomb."

"I saw a 150-foot column of fire and then the middle cars fell off the tracks," he said. "I grabbed some blankets and I ran up there. I was the first one up there. I saw a little guy come outside." It was Damian Benitez.

"He was bleeding, and he says, `I got to the top of the tracks, but the flames were so high I couldn't see in the train.' "

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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