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Crash Felt Calm for Some Riders

July 9, 1999

EAGLE LAKE, Texas (AP) _ To Marie Smith, the derailment of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited was like a bump in the road, no big deal. It was much more frightening at the front of the train.

``We felt the cars in front of us banging into each other and then saw the car in front of us tilt and go flying sideways,″ said Ann Johnson, 51, of Glendora, Calif., traveling with her 21-year-old daughter, Kristen. ``When we looked out the window, we saw the engine coming toward us.″

Twenty of the 235 people aboard were taken to the hospital Thursday afternoon after the train collided with a truck at a rural crossing about 60 miles west of Houston.

The train, on its way from Los Angeles to Orlando, Fla., along one of the nation’s main east-west rail links, slammed into the truck carrying a salt water disposal tank. The train’s two engines and eight of 13 cars were torn from the tracks.

The lead locomotive was thrown onto its side, and rescuers broke its windshield to pull the engineer and a trainee from the wreckage.

The engineer was the most seriously injured and remained hospitalized today in stable condition with a head injury. His condition was not considered life-threatening.

Three train passengers were hospitalized overnight and were expected to be released today. Others were released Thursday after being treated for minor bumps and bruises and boarded buses for Houston, the train’s next scheduled stop.

The truck driver, whom police identified as Jason Bubela, 21, was not seriously hurt. Police were looking into potential charges against him, but none were immediately filed.

Passengers in the front of the train fared worst.

``All of a sudden, the train jerked back and forth, back and forth, and there were big noises,″ said Fatima Talebi, 52, of Irvine, Calif. ``I knew something was going to happen. I heard a lot of yelling and praying.″

But those at the back seemed as if they had been aboard another train.

``It was fairly calm,″ said Ms. Smith, 24, of Dublin, Ireland, who was seated near the end. ``We just walked to the exit.″

Among the uninjured passengers were Cindy McCain, wife of Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain, and their son, Jack, 13.

Cranes tried to right the derailed cars and repair 800 feet of damaged track, which is used daily by about 28 trains.

The Sunset Limited was involved in the worst accident in Amtrak’s 28-year history. On Sept. 22, 1993, 42 passengers and five crew members died when the train plunged off a bridge into a bayou near Mobile, Ala. The bridge had been damaged minutes earlier by a towboat.

In March, Amtrak’s City of New Orleans ran into a truck at a crossing in Bourbonnais, Ill., killing 11 people and injuring more than 100.

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