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Conrail Train in Pittsburgh Accident Found Going Twice Speed Limit

July 23, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Conrail engineer involved in a Pittsburgh train collision in which chemical fumes were released was going 60 mph in a 30 mph zone and may not have been alert due to a pain-killing drug, investigators say.

The Federal Railroad Administration said in its report Wednesday that the engineer also improperly manipulated the throttle and brake controls on a westbound freight train, creating motions that helped trigger the collision and 34-car derailment on April 11.

The two Conrail freight trains were heading in opposite directions on separate tracks when the eastbound train was sideswiped, causing cars on both trains to derail. Some 16,000 people in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood were evacuated because of a fire and because hazardous materials were contained in nine cars.

The report said a tape recovered from the ″black box″ of one of the three westbound locomotives showed the train was traveling at ″approximatel y 60 mph through curved track that had a speed limit of 30 mph.″ The FRA said the eastbound train was going about 15 mph.

On May 14, the FRA reported that the engineer, Scott D. Houtz, took a pain- killing drug on the two days prior to the accident but none on the day of the accident itself.

The agency’s reported Wednesday that because traces of the drug, Fiorinal, remain in the blood for many hours after ingestion, ″the engineer’s self- medication may have adversely affected his alertness.″ Houtz and two others on the westbound train were suspended after the accident.

In its report, the FRA noted that tapes disappeared from the ″black boxes″ of two of the three westbound locomotives. The black box containing the tape that was recovered was ″installed in an unusual location, away from the spot at which the event recorder would normally be found in this type of locomotive,″ the agency said.

The FRA said the discovery raised the possibility that ″person or persons unknown made an unauthorized entrance into the ‘black boxes’ and removed the tapes prior to the arrival of federal investigators on the scene.″

But the agency said ″the true explanation for the disappearance of these tapes will probably never be known.″

The tapes contain valuable information about speed and, sometimes, on braking patterns. In its report, the FRA said the incident ″suggests a need to modify the locking devices on event recorders to ensure they cannot be easily tampered with.″

The FRA said the disappearance of two of the tapes did not hamper the investigation because ″their data would have been redundant with that contained on the third event recorder.″

After leaving their homes, residents returned five hours later only to be evacuated around midnight because one of the derailed tank cars was leaking potentially deadly phosphorous oxychloride.

Not until the chemical had been transferred to trucks and sent out of the city late the next afternoon were people allowed to return to their homes. Twenty-five people were treated at area hospitals, most for eye and throat irritation.

The FRA said a broken wheel on one of the westbound cars was found to be a result, and not a cause, of the accident.

Conrail spokesman Chris Mykrantz said the railroad had no comment on the FRA report.

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