Six persons were killed and more than 60 injured early this morning when the passenger cars of a luxury Southern Railway train jumped the tracks near this rural mountainous community and, in the words of one passenger, "piled into each other like an accordion."

Observers at the scene said eight cars and two locomotives derailed while rounding a steep downhill curve and then tumbled down an embankment, taking many of the train's 65 passengers and 12-member crew with them.

The train, the Southern Crescent, was on the way from Atlanta to Washington and was 35 miles south of Charlottesville when it twisted off the tracks. Railway officials and U.S. investigators said yesterday that the cause of the derailment could not be immediately determined.

One passenger who was asleep in the second t last car said that when the train derailed, "There was a loud clap, almost like thunder. It just jarred the hell out of me and everyone else."

When the tumbling cars had finally come to rest, "It was dark inside and outside, so it was hard to figure out what was going on," said the man, who asked not to be identified.

"There was a lot of screaming," when the train derailed at 5:38 a.m., said David Block, a passenger from Brooklyn, N.Y0.

"The train seemed to speed up and then ran real rough," Block said. "People were falling all over the place and luggage was falling right on top of them."

The accident piled many of the train's passenger cars and locomotives on top of each other and temporarily trapped dozens of passengers and crew members in the twisted wreckage.

Rescue workers from Nelson County, where the wreck occurred, arrived on the scene within 30 minutes of the accident and began breaking windows and cutting through the tangled metal to free the survivors and carry out the dead.

For more than 11 hours, one of the train's cooks, Ned Haynes, was pinned in the wreckage by a stove, according to rescue workers. A doctor on the scene, Kenneth Wallenborn of Charlottesville, said Haynes suffered third-degree burns on his chest and stomach and a broken ankle and leg.

One of those killed in the crash, according to police, was Howard Louis Jackson, of Alexandria, who was a 55-year-old flagman employed by the Southern Railway Co. for the past 35 years.

His wife, Mary, said today that she never worried about her husband "when he was working, especially on a short run like this. You never dream about something like this happening. After all this time, it isn't even something you think about."

Also dead, according to a hospital spokesman in Charlottesville, were Lewis Price, of Atlanta; Jackson Homer Hume and Edith Carrol Hume, both of Madison Heights, Va., and 14-year-old Edward Franklin Shaw of Wilmington, Del. The identity of the sixth victim, whose body was only removed from the wreckage late this evening, was being withheld pending notification of relatives.

State Police said 62 passengers were treated at hospitals and hospital officials said six persons were listed as being in critical condition. Of the more than 60 injured, 39 were taken to the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, where 18 were admitted.

Two persons were admitted to Lynchburg General Hospital, and another 21 passengers were taken to Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville where they were treated for minor bruises and bumps and released.

Those less seriously injured and able to travel were subsequently taken to a Holiday Inn in Charlottesville. A few remained there overnight as guests of Southern Railway, but most were transported by bus to Alexandria and Washington.

Two area residents were listed among those critically injured. They were identified as Wesley B. Tomlin of S. Stinson Rd., Alexandria, and Michael Haines, of 7908 Pavilion Dr., Severn, Md.

Reporters at the scene of the accident counted what appeared to be eight passenger cars and four locomotives, all but two of which had derailed in some respect. Railroad officials said, however, that only seven passenger cars actually were involved in the accident.

John Rehor, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board who was at the scene, said four locomotives and seven cars had traveled about 500 feet into the five-degree curve when the accident occurred.

The train's speed at the time of the derailment is not known, but Rehor said the speed limit along that section of track is 45 miles per hour.

"There were speed recorder tapes in each of the four locomotives," said Rehor, who noted that all the tapes would be studied in the laboratory to help officials determine the exact cause of the derailment.

The scene at the accident site was described variously by passengers and reporters as resembling a domino game or a toy train set, with railroad cars flung in all directions off the tracks and smashed up against each other.

While the lead locomotive remained upright ahead of the other cars, the second and third locomotives fell off to the left of the tracks and came to rest on their sides.

About 100 feet behind the third locomotive, the first four cars of the train were twisted around, some pushing into each other. Two of the cars were lying across the tracks and two were thrown to the left in a deep ravine. The fourth locomotive was at the bottom of the ravine underneath the dining car. Two sleeper cars remained upright off the tracks, and the last car of the train -- used by railroad personnel -- remained upright on the tracks.

All of the passengers interviewed said there was no panic on the cars after the initial shock of the derailment.

"It's amazing that everyone remained so calm," said Frank Sims, owner of a textile machinery service company in Easley, S'C. "Everyone acted pretty much on their own, helping each other out as best we could."

The train, filled with passengers bound for Washington and New York, was due to arrive at Union Station around 8:30 p.m. Most of the passengers had boarded in Atlanta the night before, and were sleeping at the time of the accident.

"I was lying on the top bunk when I felt three or four jerks and a lunge to the left," said Sharon O'Driscoll, an Atlanta teen-ager."There wasn't any noise. I looked out the window and saw a lot of metal sticking up."

The weather was clear at the time of the derailment, but by mid-afternoon a steady rain was drenching rescue operations.

Minutes before the accident, passengers said, many cars on the train got extremely hot.

Each car, said Southern Railways spokesman Tom Morgret, contains an individual thermostat to regulate the temperature.

"I can't understand why all the cars were excessively hot," Morgret said. "That is definitely something that will come out in the investigation. I'm not qualified to know if there is a connection (to the derailment)or not."

A Southern Railways spokesman said today it was the third time the train had derailed in rectnt years.

According to a spokesman for Southern Railway, the train's engineer radioed the railroad dispatcher in Greensboro, N.C., immediately after the accident and the dispatcher, in turn, contacted authorities in Nelson County to direct rescue workers to the accident scene. By the time they arrived, passengers outside the wreck were working to free those inside.

E. L. Embrey, a rescue squad captain from Faber, Va., said 15 rescue squads from a 60-to 70-mile radius came to the scene before the day was out, involving about 150 people in the rescue operations.

At the Alexandria station, where four persons got off a special bus that transported passengers to the Washington area, one man said the middle cars on the train "got it worst by far. The baggage car and a couple of others were just destroyed."

About a dozen passengers were bused to Union Station in Washington, arriving at 4:50 p.m. Several were limping and wearing bandages. The group was escorted by Southern Railway officials to the train terminal where they waited to board the Metroliner to New York.

"I'll be scared all the way, I'll tell you that," said Philip Anderson, a factory foreman from New York. "No more train rides after this."

Anderson said he saw a fellow passenger at th accident site "start kissing the ground" when he got out of the wreckage. "He was so glad to be alive he was just kissing the ground."