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Amtrak Engineer Describes Attempt to Avoid Head-On Train Collision

June 26, 1996

ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) _ The engineer on an Amtrak train involved in a deadly crash told investigators today that he accelerated, hoping to make it to a crossover, when he saw a Maryland commuter train coming directly at him.

Eleven people died in the flaming Feb. 16 crash in nearby Silver Spring, all of them aboard the commuter train.

Amtrak engineer Donald Noble was the opening witness at the National Transportation Safety Board’s three-day inquiry into the disaster.

Noble said the MARC commuter train was coming toward him rapidly and he knew the commuter train couldn’t stop in time.

The Amtrak train had two locomotives followed by seven baggage cars and Noble said he hoped to make it onto a crossover switch so that the commuter train would hit one of the baggage cars.

``I thought (my passengers’) best chance was if we had a sideswipe instead of a head-on,″ Noble said.

``Did you consider jumping?″ Noble was asked.

``No. ... I was busy at the time,″ he said.

Despite accelerating, only the first locomotive made it onto the crossover. The commuter train hit that locomotive in the side, rupturing a fuel tank and causing an immediate fire.

The fire was blamed in the deaths of several people aboard the commuter train, who investigators said were unable to open windows and emergency doors.

The dead included several Job Corps workers returning home from West Virginia.

``I had no idea those kids were on that train ... but I had people on my train, too. My primary concern was for them,″ Noble said.

The MARC train was being pushed by its locomotive and the train crew and most of the passengers were in the lead car that struck the Amtrak train. The dead included eight passengers and three crew members.

MARC passenger Damien Benitez said in a sworn statement that he was unable to open a window in that train but was able to escape through a hole in the side of the car.

Benitez said that as he fled he ``heard banging and kicking″ behind him, ``like they were trying to open _ break the window or something _ but it wouldn’t open.″

Safety board chairman Jim Hall began the hearing by noting that his agency has called for years for improved passenger car emergency exits and for a system of positive train separation to prevent collisions.

Positive train separation is an electronic system that can slow down or stop trains that get too close together. Hall said that more than 70 percent of accidents can be attributed to human error and that such a system could help reduce that toll.

Noble agreed that such a system would be useful, commenting about his accident that ``the hardest part to deal with is the knowledge that the accident was preventable. Mechanical safeguards could have been in place. ...″