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Three on Amtrak Train Pulled Brakes

April 21, 2002

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CRESCENT CITY, Fla. (AP) _ Two Amtrak engineers and a conductor all hit the emergency brakes just seconds before a train derailment that left four people dead and more than 150 injured, investigators said Saturday.

The lead engineer of the Amtrak Auto Train told the National Transportation Safety Board that he saw a disjointed track about an hour into a trip from Sanford to Lorton, Va., and slammed on the engine’s brake.

Seconds later, a backup engineer in the locomotive cab and a conductor two cars back felt the train hit the disjointed track and switched on emergency brakes as well, NTSB board member George Black said Saturday.

The NTSB hasn’t said if its investigators have been able to verify if the track was misaligned. The lead engineer told the NTSB the tracks were misaligned by about 10 inches, NTSB investigator Russ Quimby said Saturday.

The train’s two engines and first two cars stayed on the tracks, but more than half of the Auto Train’s 40 cars derailed Thursday afternoon, throwing passengers to the floor and against walls. The train was going 56 mph in a 60 mph zone at the time, investigators said.

The four people killed _ all vacationers and snowbirds returning to the North from Florida _ were identified as Frank Alfredo, 67, of Waccabuc, N.Y.; Joan DiStefano, 65, of Staten Island, N.Y.; and Joseph Wright, 75, and his wife, Marjorie, 70, of Toronto.

A person who answered the phone Saturday at Alfredo’s landscaping business in Pound Ridge, N.Y., said the family was going through a lot and declined to comment. Alfredo and his wife, Dolores, have five grown children and had just sold their home a few weeks ago, a neighbor said.

DiStefano’s son, Robert, reached at the family’s home Saturday, declined to offer any details about his mother. The family of Joseph and Marjorie Wright had gone to Florida, Canada Foreign Affairs Department spokeswoman Martine Lagace said Saturday.

The train’s two engineers were put on temporary administrative leave, a standard procedure in an investigation, Amtrak spokeswoman Kathleen Cantillon said Saturday. She said she didn’t think either played a role in the accident.

``We feel they acted appropriately,″ Cantillon said.

The train’s lead engineer had 35 years of experience, Black said.

Saturday’s Auto Train was bound for Washington with 418 passengers and 34 crew members, as well as 200 automobiles stacked in 23 specially designed cars, when it derailed.

The tracks had been visually inspected eight hours earlier and had been in good condition, according to CSX, the freight railroad that owns the track.

Four other trains had passed over the area just before the wreck, including a southbound train carrying coal. A preliminary examination of the coal train and another train showed no problems, but investigators wanted to perform another inspection on the coal train, which passed only six to eight minutes earlier at 35 mph.

It is not uncommon for rails to expand in the Florida heat, but Black said the temperature, 81 degrees, did not appear to be a factor. Misalignments can also be caused by damage done by a previous train.

CSX spokeswoman Jane Covington said she could not comment on the engineer’s account of the track being misaligned or on whether CSX maintenance crews had reported problems on the stretch of track, citing the NTSB’s ongoing investigation.

An audit by federal inspectors two years ago raised questions about the effectiveness of CSX’s track inspection, maintenance and track construction programs. The Federal Railroad Administration faulted CSX for failing to make track repairs quickly and said several track-related derailments could have been prevented with better inspections and maintenance.

Amtrak officials hoped to have the Auto Train running again by Monday or Tuesday, Cantillon said Saturday. Workers in hard hats and reflective vests used cranes Saturday to clear away the remaining rail cars.

The derailment was Amtrak’s deadliest accident since March 15, 1999, when a train collided with a truck and derailed near Bourbonnais, Ill., killing 13 people and injuring more than 100.

The last Auto Train accident was in 1998, when a train hit an empty car at a crossing in the Virginia town of Jarratt. There were no injuries.


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