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Operator Says He Forgot To Switch Amtrak Train To Different Track

February 2, 1988

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A control tower operator told investigators a series of distractions made him forget to divert an Amtrak passenger train away from tracks where it hit a 17-ton maintenance vehicle.

The train derailment early Friday injured 25 people. The operator, Tom Connor, fled his post and was not tested until Monday for drug and alcohol abuse, as required by federal law after an accident, officials said.

″I feel very bad about all this,″ said Connor, who looked bewildered and frightened by the crush of reporters he spoke to after being questioned by federal investigators Monday.

Connor told investigators it was his mistake to not switch the Amtrak Night Owl to a track designated by dispatchers, said William C. Pugh, chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

″He was busy. There was a lot going on and while he was trying to handle all these requests and communicate with his dispatcher, he forgot,″ Pugh said Connor told investigators.

Connor, 30, of Aldan is an eight-year Amtrak employee qualified to fill in for sick or vacationing operators at seven towers, Pugh said.

He had been on vacation for seven days and was called in to work three hours before the 11:30 p.m. shift started after being up all day Thursday, Pugh said. But Connor told investigators he was not sleepy before the 12:34 a.m. wreck, Pugh said.

Pugh said Connor gave blood and urine samples Monday that will be analyzed at a laboratory. He declined to comment on the effect of the three-day delay on drug and alcohol tests.

Connor’s attorney, Arthur Donato, who contacted federal officials 16 hours after the accident to set up their meeting with Connor, said his client always had intended to cooperate fully and the time lapse resulted from a misunderstanding.

″We were not hiding out,″ Denato said. ″I was asked by an Amtrak official when it would be convenient for me to bring Mr. Connor in, and I told him Monday afternoon at 3 o’clock.″

Pugh said officials had considered the matter so urgent they sent police officers looking for Connor.

Federal Railroad Administration chief John Riley said, ″I consider this a refusal to submit to testing because if Mr. Connor’s attorney knew where Mr. Connor was Friday night, he could have produced him for a test Friday night.″

Donato said his client had no reason to fear drug and alcohol tests.

″As I understand it, other witnesses who have already given testimony before this committee have indicated that Tom looked appropriate and acted appropriately under all the circumstances,″ Donato said.

Pugh said Connor was advised by his attorney not to answer questions regarding drug or alcohol use.

Donato said, ″I think that it’s pretty obvious that Mr. Connor was in a situation where he knew from the radio report that a train had derailed ... and when he did go down to see the accident, it scared him and he panicked and he ran.″

According to Pugh, Connor said he feared two workers on a track maintenance car had been killed. The men jumped to safety from the 30-foot-long, 17-ton ballast regulator, used to keep the railbed’s gravel evenly distributed.

The NTSB said the wreck in Chester, about 15 miles south of Philadelphia, caused an estimated $300,000 in damage, and one of four tracks remains closed.

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