National News

Amtrak Train Crash in South Carolina Kills at Least 2 and Injures 116

Posted February 4, 2018 5:57 p.m. EST

PINE RIDGE, S.C. — An Amtrak train traveling from New York to Miami crashed into a freight train early Sunday, killing at least two people, injuring at least 116 others and spilling thousands of gallons of fuel, according to officials.

Amtrak said its train, which was carrying eight crew members and 139 passengers, hit a CSX train near Cayce, South Carolina, outside Columbia, around 2:35 a.m.

The Amtrak train’s engineer, Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and its conductor, Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida, died in the crash, Margaret Fisher, the Lexington County Coroner, said at a news conference Sunday afternoon. Both men were in the first car of the train.

“We should have had a lot more casualties, but we didn’t,” she said.

Drone footage of the crash broadcast by WLTX showed aerial views of the scene.

The CSX train was stationary and appeared to be on the correct track, Gov. Henry McMaster said at a news conference Sunday. “It appears that Amtrak was on the wrong track,” he said. CSX operates the track, according to its online system map.

The first engine of the freight train was torn up, he said, and the engine of the Amtrak train, Train 91, was “barely recognizable.”

“It’s a horrible thing to see — to understand the force that this involved,” McMaster said.

In a statement earlier Sunday, Amtrak said the lead engine and some of the passenger cars had derailed.

It was the second major crash involving an Amtrak train in less than a week. On Wednesday, a train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat in West Virginia hit a garbage truck in rural Virginia, killing a passenger in the truck.

One of the lawmakers on that train, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., visited survivors of Sunday’s crash at Pine Ridge Middle School, where the American Red Cross set up a shelter.

“It’s surreal,” Wilson said in an interview. “I identify with the passengers that you want to continue right away.”

The cause of the crash Sunday was not immediately clear. The National Transportation Safety Board said on Twitter that it was beginning an investigation into the crash.

While it was too early to speculate as to what might have happened, “it appears that one or the other of the trains failed to obey a signal,” Steven Ditmeyer, an industry consultant and former federal railroad official, said in a phone interview Sunday.

The train, operating Amtrak’s Silver Star service, originated at Pennsylvania Station in New York and was bound for Miami. The Lexington Sheriff’s Department said on Twitter that the crash occurred near Charleston Highway and Pine Ridge Road, close to Pine Ridge, South Carolina.

Samuel Rodriguez, 34, an unemployed metalworker from Brownsville, Brooklyn, was sitting beside his mother, Yolanda, 57, near the rear of the third or fourth car on his way to Port Richey, Florida.

“It just started shaking, you could actually feel the cars hitting the back of our train,” he said. “Smoke. Screaming. I went to pick up one kid, checked my mother out to see if she was all right: ‘Ma, you all right? Don’t move.'”

Rodriguez continued: “That’s when I went between aisles, and I saw a kid bleeding all over, his skull was showing, and his mother was in shock. So I run to the back, try to get to the bathroom. Bathroom’s tore up, toilet bowl’s out, everything’s a disaster, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m still walking.'”

He said his mother suffered a fractured nose and injured her leg in the crash, and was released from Lexington Medical Center in Columbia.

Officials said that 116 of the Amtrak passengers had been transferred to local hospitals. The CSX train did not have any passengers on board, McMaster said.

Three Palmetto Health hospitals in Columbia received patients from the crash, including 59 adults and three children, Dr. Eric A. Brown, physician executive at Palmetto Health Richland, said at a news conference Sunday afternoon. Most of the injuries were minor.

In order to accommodate all of the patients, officials triaged patients in a tent that they had set up several days ago in preparation for the “flu surge,” he said.

“Remarkably, I think most of them were quite calm,” Brown said.

Six patients were admitted to the Palmetto hospitals: One is critically injured and two are seriously injured, Brown said.

The Lexington County spokesman, Harrison Cahill, said a hazardous materials team had been called to the site because roughly 5,000 gallons of fuel had spilled as a result of the crash.

“We were able to secure two leaks of fuel from the trains,” he said, adding there was “no threat to the public at this time.” “This is not our first train derailment,” said Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, citing a fatal derailment in January 2005. A 42-car freight train operated by Norfolk Southern crashed into a smaller train near Granitteville, South Carolina, killing eight people, injuring more than 200 and leaking chlorine gas.

“It’s unfortunate that we have two fatalities,” he said of the crash on Sunday. “Our hearts are with those families right now.”

On Twitter, President Donald Trump expressed his condolences for the victims of the crash, as did Sen. Tim E. Scott, R-S.C.

“My thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims involved in this mornings train collision in South Carolina,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Thank you to our incredible First Responders for the work they’ve done!”

Amtrak has had a number of high-profile crashes and derailments over the years, leading to criticism from consumer advocates and government officials. Federal Railroad Administration statistics have shown that in recent years the agency has had an average of about two derailments a month, accounting for about one-quarter of all the accidents it reports.

Most derailments, however, have rarely caused more than minor injuries.

Amtrak maintains that it has been a “safe and reliable transporter of more than 30 million passengers” and that it has a strong safety record. However, after a 2016 episode in Pennsylvania in which a train hit a piece of track equipment and derailed, killing two, it said in a statement, “We need to assess how we can get better.”

Speaking at the temporary shelter Sunday, Wilson declined to say whether he wanted Congress to convene a hearing about Amtrak’s recent spate of crashes, but he said he had confidence in the rail service.

“With the level of commerce every day, whether it be by passenger or by freight, fortunately, the accidents are rare, but each one should be looked at to be avoided in the future,” he said.

Amtrak has installed technology known as positive train control on parts of its rail network in the Northeast Corridor after passenger trains traveling well above the speed limit derailed, leaving a trail of death and injuries.

Positive train control would have prevented this kind of crash from occurring, Ditmeyer said. “But CSX is not required by law to have the system operational before the end of 2018. That’s the deadline set by Congress, but none of the railroads seem to be rushing to get it installed and operational before that deadline.”

Representatives for CSX did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the Amtrak crash in Virginia on Wednesday, two passengers from the truck were injured — one seriously — and hospitalized. Two members of the train’s crew and at least two passengers, including Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., were also hospitalized with minor injuries.

Republicans had chartered the train to carry them from Washington to the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where the party was holding its annual policy retreat. Several lawmakers who were on the train estimated that more than half of the Republican members of the House and Senate, including Speaker Paul Ryan, were on board, and that many were accompanied by their spouses.

In December, a passenger train on a newly opened Amtrak route jumped the tracks on an overpass south of Tacoma, Washington, slamming rail cars into a busy highway, killing at least three people and injuring about 100 others.

In 2015, an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. A Pennsylvania judge dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against the Amtrak engineer, saying it appeared to be an accident and not the result of criminal negligence.