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Railroad: Brakes Failed, Sabotage Suspected in Wreck of Runaway Train

February 16, 1996

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ Standing in a parked locomotive, Gary LaValley had about two seconds to notice a runaway freight train barreling close to 50 mph down a parallel track.

``My first thought was trying to get out the front door,″ said LaValley, an employee of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. ``Of course, in two seconds you’ve only got a couple of steps. I think I even said out loud: `So this is what it’s like to die.′ ″

LaValley braced himself as the train operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe slammed into two locomotives on the track beside him and then into a rail yard building late Wednesday.

Sabotage was suspected, an official at Burlington Northern said Thursday, but refused to disclose what evidence was found.

``There appears to have been some tampering with the train. As a result we have called in the FBI,″ said Dick Russack, a spokesman for Burlington Northern in Illinois.

The train had passed an inspection at the Northtown yard.

``The one thing we know is that the brakes did not have the air pressure they needed. Now, why? We don’t know,″ said John Bergene, a Canadian Pacific spokesman. Braking power comes from air pressure carried in hoses from the locomotives to the rail cars.

The crash hurled steel wreckage just short of an employee lunchroom, injured nine men, and disgorged much of the train’s cargo of lumber, grain and other products. Forty-four cars and six locomotives were twisted in a quarter mile of destruction.

LaValley escaped injury.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe offered a $10,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest and conviction.

But the FBI said it had not determined whether sabotage occurred.

``We are still in the preliminary stages,″ Special Agent Fred Tremter said.

Rail worker Warren Lear, speaking from his hospital bed, said he and his colleagues were discussing a college basketball game when they heard about a runaway train on a radio. Then came the rumble like ``a huge thunder.″

Lear’s foot got pinned between a knocked-down wall and the floor. It took about an hour for rescuers to free him, but he lost his big toe and part of another toe.

None of the other injuries, mostly broken bones and sprains, was believed to be life-threatening. Six men were treated and released.

Last October, one person was killed and 78 injured in the sabotage of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited in the desert near Hyder, Ariz., about 55 miles southwest of Phoenix.

Federal authorities said a saboteur removed a metal bar holding rail sections together, pulled 29 spikes from a stretch of Southern Pacific-owned rail and rewired a safety mechanism that would have warned the crew of a broken track. There have been no arrests.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that investigators were studying whether a Feb. 1 Burlington Northern Santa Fe wreck in southern California, which killed two people, also could have been caused by sabotage.

But Phil Olekszyk, a safety administrator with the Federal Rail Administration, said Thursday that other explanations haven’t been ruled out for the the problem discovered in the wreckage _ two brake valves in the wrong position.

An FBI investigator was sent to examine the Southern California wreckage but indications were that sabotage did not appear to be involved, an FBI official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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