NTSB Opens Hearings Into Fatal Amtrak Crash
BALTIMORE (AP) _ Screams of trapped passengers shattered the brief silence that followed the fatal crash of an Amtrak train and a Conrail freight on Jan. 4, a survivor told federal investigators Monday.
″The car yawed to the right and then started to turn over,″ Ronald H. Reimann Jr. testified on the first day of a National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the accident that killed 16 people and injured 175. ″It was kind of like a big cement mixer with the people and baggage.″
″I had to crawl over seats and luggage and force my way out″ of the second passenger car, said the Navy submarine officer from Groton, Conn. ″I had to kick a window to get out of the car.″
Reimmann said he helped other passengers in the car behind his get out through emergency windows and then tried to put out a nearby fire.
Earlier in the hearing, a firefighter who had rescued passengers testified he smelled alcohol on the breath of an Amtrak assistant conductor. The Amtrak employee denied he had been drinking.
Lt. Richard Brooks, a Baltimore County firefighter, told investigators he made the determination after talking briefly with a man he says was assistant conductor Sterling A. Spivey.
″I smelled a blast of alcohol from his breath and then I disregarded anything else that he said and walked away,″ Brooks said.
The firefighter said he remembered the Amtrak employee he talked with was wearing an Amtrak uniform and a name badge with a last name beginning with the letter ″S″.
Brooks said he later determined it was Spivey after seeing a crew list in a newspaper.
The meeting occurred about 12 minutes after the crash, which also injured 175 people, Brooks said at the hearing, which is expected to run through Friday.
Spivey, who said he did not consume any alcohol the day of the crash, told the NTSB panel that he did not remember meeting Brooks.
″I was in the rear of the train, he said he was near the front of the train,″ Spivey said. ″It’s impossible to be in the rear of the train and where he said I was at the same time.″
Although he recalled passing a firefighter on the train, Spivey said he did not talk with the man.
The Amtrak conductor, Donald E. Keasey, and an eyewitness to the crash who lives behind the crash site in Chase also testified.
Two of the most important figures in the crash won’t be questioned during the hearing, however.
Conrail engineer Richard L. Gates and brakeman Edward Cromwell won’t be among the 32 people expected to testify, said NTSB Vice-Chairwoman Patricia Goldman.
″We would have clearly preferred that they testify, but we were told that they would plead the Fifth Amendment,″ said Ms. Goldman.
During a break in the proceedings, she said she did not consider their testimony crucial since other witnesses would cover the same area and the NTSB had copies of statements Gates and Cromwell made to investigators Jan. 7.
Both Gates and Cromwell were found to have traces of marijuana in their systems at the time of the crash. Additional tests revealed traces of the illegal drug PCP in Cromwell’s system.
The hearing will focus on what caused the crash, including whether drug use played a role, Ms. Goldman said in her opening remarks.
Despite the results of the drug tests on Gates and Cromwell, investigators have not determined when they took the drugs or whether they were impaired at the time of the accident.
Gates has denied smoking marijuana on the train.
Both Gates and Cromwell have been suspended without pay since the accident in which a unit of three Conrail locomotives ran past several warning signals, sliding into the path of a northbound 12-car Amtrak train carrying more than 600 people.
The hearing also will try to determine why the Conrail train, which was traveling at more than 60 mph, failed to slow down despite at least two warning signals to reduce speed and prepare to stop.
Gates has maintained that the initial track signal told him to slow down and proceed through an upcoming switch.