A northbound Amtrak passenger train carrying 321 Easter Sunday travelers plowed into a mudslide and jumped the tracks in central Virginia early yesterday morning, causing minor injuries to 24 persons on board, authorities said.
"The Crescent," a 13-car train bound from New Orleans to Washington and New York was 24 miles south of Charlottesville and traveling at 50 miles an hour when its two diesel locomotives and six of its cars derailed in what witnesses described as a "mess of smashed cars and split tracks."
"I went crashing into the seat in front of me," recalled passenger Debbie Juusela, 27, of Atlanta, who was en route to Washington with her husband to visit her mother-in-law. The accident occurred at 5:58 a.m. as most of the passengers slept or dozed.
The 24 injured persons, including two passengers from the Washington area, were all treated at Charlottesville hospitals and released by late yesterday. They included 17 passengers and seven crew members.
The mudslide, which occurred in a small gorge just past a bend on the Southern Railway freight tracks used by the train, was "precipitated by very heavy rain that fell in the area the previous night and day," according to Amtrak spokesman E.F. Myers.
"There was a lot of rain, there was a mudslide, and the train hit the mud," Myers said. Amtrak officials said an investigation into the accident is continuing.
After leaving the tracks, the two locomotives and a baggage car came to rest on their sides, the Amtrak spokesman said. He said the five coaches immediately behind "were derailed and leaning."
Most of the passengers were asleep in their seats when the accident occurred, which apparently mitigated the effects of the derailment. Dorrie Steele, 25, of Atlanta, was traveling with her three children and a nephew, whose ages range from 17 months to four years. She said she and the children were barely aroused from their slumber.
She explained that "the accident wasn't like in the movies where you slide for an hour and a half. It just came to a stop."
And another passenger, Morris Harrigan, 18, of Falls Church, said all he recalled of the derailment was a "little rock."
However, Chrystal Francis, 32, of Philadelphia, called the derailment a frightful experience that she said she would always remember.
"At first I didn't know what was going on," she said. When she saw the twisted metal and smashed glass, she said she realized the accident could have been worse.
"This is an Easter that I'll never forget," said Francis. "I just thank the good Lord that we are all here today."
Francis, Harrigan and Steele, along with most of the other passengers, were brought to Union Station here by bus. The injured were taken from the train to hospitals in Charlottesville.
"The injuries were minor," said Elaine Patterson, a spokeswoman for the University of Virginia hospital where 18 of the injured were treated. "They had bruises, muscle strains and one has a fractured rib."
The two Washington area residents were identified as Cassandra D. Hewitt, 26, of 2627 Arlington Dr., Alexandria, and Willie L. Wright, 53, of 10214 Prince Pl., Hyattsville.
State Police on the scene said Southern Railway workers cleared the tracks by early afternoon. Service is expected to resume this morning.
Yesterday's accident occurred about a dozen miles north of where the same train, then operated by the Southern Railway, derailed in December 1978, causing six deaths and 62 injuries.