Officials remained baffled yesterday about why a train carrying 1,000 people -- employes of the Norfolk Southern Corp. and their relatives -- jumped track Sunday in remote swampland outside of Suffolk, Va., leaving more than 200 people injured, seven seriously.
"There's nothing that leaps out or suggests itself at this point," said Patricia A. Goldman, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "We plan to look at the wheels, at the rail, the switch, and talk to the crew."
At the throttle of the No. 611, a streamlined 1950s-vintage steam engine carrying 23 passsenger coaches on a pleasure excursion from Norfolk to Petersburg, was Norfolk Southern Corp. Chairman Robert B. Claytor.
"I am told that he is a qualified engineer," Goldman said. "We will obviously want to interview him and others who were involved in the operation. It isn't fair to say that he is the focus of the investigation any more than any other area."
"Something either went wrong with the car or something went wrong with the track under the train," Claytor, 64, told The Associated Press. "It wasn't anything in the operation of the engine," he said. "The steam engine's in perfect shape."
Claytor said he did not believe he caused the accident, saying a qualified employe stood at his side throughout the trip.
The NTSB sent a five-member investigating team to Suffolk yesterday in addition to Goldman, and they were joined by a seven-member team from the Federal Railroad Administration, officials said.
Almost 220 people were taken to Tidewater hospitals after 14 of the train's 23 cars left the track, said Norfolk Southern spokesman Rob Chapman. Seven persons remained hospitalized yesterday, four of them in intensive care.
Chris Brewer, a 10-year-old from Chesapeake, Va., the youngest of the seriously injured victims, was upgraded from critical to stable condition yesterday, according to his father, Navy Capt. Robert Brewer, a Portsmouth plastic surgeon.
Robert Brewer said he was with his family and a group of Cub and Boy Scouts on the expedition, and was in the dining car when the train derailed.
"The whole food counter started coming toward us," he said. "We realized we were going to the woods. Everything was coming toward us."
"We felt the brakes hit three times," said Chapman, who was on the train with his wife, although not in one of the derailed cars. "On the third brake, we felt the train leave the rail and tilt, then grind to a halt."
The train was traveling through the 106,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp when it derailed, leaving some victims trapped in passenger cars for more than 90 minutes.
A Norfolk Southern spokesman defended Claytor's right to be at the throttle of No. 611, describing him as a lifelong railroad enthusiast who relished the chances when he could act as engineer.
"He's a real buff and a qualified engineer," said company spokesman Don Piedmont. "This is no guy playing with toy trains."
Piedmont said Claytor was engineer for the steam-powered locomotive "several times a year." Norfolk Southern frequently takes the locomotive on expeditions as a public relations device, company officials said.