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Sole Survivor of Canadian Freight Crew to Be Questioned in Train Wreck

February 11, 1986

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) _ The sole surviving crewman of the freight train that ran a red light and piled into an oncoming passenger train, killing at least 29 people, will face a fact-finding inquiry within two days, officials said Monday.

Ross Walker, Canadian National’s senior vice president for western Canada, said in a television interview that all three crew members should have seen cautionary and stop signals shortly before the head-on collision Saturday.

Two bodies were recovered from the wreckage on Sunday, and medical officials said a third, unidentified body was removed late Monday.

At news conferences Sunday, Walker and Alex Rennie of Canadian National said human error appeared to be the most likely cause of the wreck, the worst in Canada since 1947. Dave Barr of the Alberta Attorney General’s office said Monday all 29 people listed as missing and presumed dead were believed to be Canadians.

The Saturday morning collision involved a 114-car Canadian National freight and nine-car Via Rail passenger train. Ninety-three people were known to have survived, with seven still hospitalized.

Transport Minister Don Mazankowski announced in Ottawa that a federal inquiry headed by Justice Rene Paul Foisy of the Alberta court of Queen’s Bench would investigate the crash.

Rennie, manager of public affairs of Canadian National’s Edmonton office, said the surviving crewman, the freight train conductor, was not hospitalized.

Walker said earlier that dispatch center records in Edmonton showed the freight train passed a red-and-amber warning signal and a triple-red stop light, then bashed through a closed track switch seconds before the collision.

Rennie said that within 48 hours, the conductor would be questioned at a fact-finding hearing before a Canadian National officer, still to be named.

Rennie said such a hearing is standard procedure after an accident and could lead to disciplinary action if the company determined there had been bad conduct.

Walker said the conductor was riding in the caboose, but an interview after the crash was useless. ″As you can imagine, he was in a pretty severely disturbed emotional state.″

The conductor, Wayne Rodney Smith, has been served with a ″formal notice of investigation″ under his railroad union contract and will be questioned Tuesday by Wayne Albert, assistant Canadian National district superintendent, Walker said.

The internal investigation by Canadian National is being headed by P.J. ″Jim″ MacDonald, the company’s general manager of operations.

Rail officials meanwhile pressed their efforts to untangle a dangerously wobbly pile of burned and mangled cars and locomotives from the tracks about 150 miles west of Edmonton.

The bodies of a Canadian National crew member and a passenger, both from the passenger train, were removed Sunday. Still missing and presumed dead were four other Canadian National crew members from the Via Rail passenger train, two of the three freight crew members and at least 21 other passengers. Via Rail is staffed by Canadian National crews.

The bodies were being examined, said Dr. John Butt, chief medical examiner for northern Alberta.

Dr. Derrick Pounder, Butt’s deputy examiner, said it might take days before all the bodies are recovered, and weeks before the identification process is completed.

Butt told reporters, ″The wreckage is very heavy. There is still fire burning in the (spilled) grain.″

Butt said some victims may never be identified.

It was Canada’s worst train wreck since a 1947 smashup at Dugald, Manitoba, killed 31 people. The worst crash ever was in June, 1864. About 100 people died when an immigrant train derailed near St.-Hilaire, Quebec and dropped into Richelieu River.

Walker reiterated Monday that ″extensive preliminary checks″ showed all signals and switches were in working order at the time the freight was moving toward the crash site.

He said two or three days of further checks were planned, adding, ″We’re not certain at all that it can’t be blamed on mechanical error.″

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