The engineer of the Southern Crescent, the train that derailed Sunday killing six and injuring more than 60 people, said yesterday that he had been "distracted" by a minor electrical problem moments before the crash and acknowledged that the train was traveling "at an excessive speed."
Engineer James E. Smith, 59, of Alexandria, said he tried in vain to brake the Washington-bound train as it sped down a Virginia hill toward a turn, but all the locomotive's brakes failed to hold.
"I didn't need to look at the speedometer," Smith said in a telephone interview from his Alexandria apartment. "I knew I was going too fast from experience."
Smith, who has been a railroad employe for 35 years and is only one year from retirement, said he had been deeply shaken by the accident, which killed one of his closest railroad friends.
Smith said he had been attempting to correct an electrical problem and had turned away from the track prior to the accident. "When I looked up from what I was doing, I realized I was too close to the curve and going [at] an excessive speed," the engineer said.
The train, carrying 65 passengers and a crew of 12, broke apart as seven of its eight passenger cars and three of its four locomotives twisted off the tracks about 5:40 a.m. Sunday near Charlottesville, Va. The lead locomotive, carrying Smith and a fireman continued down the track, coming to a halt nearly a half-mile from the derailed and crumpled train.
Two National Transportation Safety Board investigators interviewed Smith yesterday morning and said later what they had learned had added "considerably" to their investigation.
A Southern Railway Co. spokesman declined yesterday to comment on Smith's statement. Spokesman Charles Morgret said it was obvious that Smith had a good record with the railroad and said he was one of its senior engineers.
According to tapes recovered from the train's locomotives, the Crescent had been going between 73 and 80 miles an hour into the curve where it derailed -- a curve that railroad officials say was designed for a maximum speed of 45 miles an hour.
Smith said "it is possible" that he was going 80 miles an hour when he entered the curve.
But when he applied the brakes, they failed to take hold, he said. Then he jammed on the emergency brakes.
"I broke (braked) the train before it actually went into the curve. There wasn't anything else for me to do but sit on the seat box (the engineer's seat) and ride it around," said Smith.
Fireman Wayne Brown, who was in the lead locomotive with Brown, was examining machinery at the time, according to Smith. "There was no one in the cabin but just myself prior to the accident," he said.
The massive 300,000 pound locomotive finally stopped but Smith said he did not know then that his train had derailed.
"I was in the curves. It was dark. I couldn't see anything. I just knew the head unit had broken away from the train," said Smith.
"I asked the fireman (Brown) what had happened. I said, 'Go look and see what's the matter with the rest of the train,'" recalled Smith.
"At that time I was practically in a state of shock. I was trying to get the train crew on the radio but they didn't answer," said Smith.
Smith, an engineer for 32 of his 35 years with Southern Railways, had run the Southern Crescent off and on for the past six years but had been given a regular position as the train's engineer six months earlier.
Smith said he never walked back to the derailment but remained with the locomotive, shaken by the accident.
A neighbor who had answered the phone at the Smith residence on Monday said that Smith had gone on a hunting trip and could not be reached for comment. In fact, said Smith, he was at home.
"I wasn't in any condition to go hunting. I stayed at home in bed. My nerves were in a shock condition, I didn't go out of the home," said Smith.
"I realized what a terrible accident it was. I lost one of my fellow workers in the accident. I had friends on the train, the flagman that was on the crew, Mr. Jackson, died," said Smith.
Flagman Howard Louis Jackson, 55, to whom Smith referred lived in Alexandria also. He had joined the Southern Railway 35 years ago, the same year as Smith. They had been good friends and often had worked on the same crews throughout their careers said Smith.
The southbound Crescent had to be rerouted Sunday because of the wreckage, but resumed regular service on Monday on the regular track, according to a Southern Railway spokesman. The train is the last famous privately operated long distance train in the country and one the Southern has sought to abandon as costly.
Fourteen people remained hospitalized at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville yesterday with injuries. Five of them were in critical condition, according to a hospital spokesman.
A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday it could be months before the agency completes its investigation. Spokesman Edward E. Slattery Jr. said the board is investigating statements from passengers that the train's temperature rose sharply before the accident. The temperature rise could be related to the electrical problem that Smith reported, Slattery said.