CAYCE, S.C. (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) — An Amtrak passenger train slammed into a freight train parked on a side track in South Carolina early Sunday, killing two Amtrak employees and injuring more than 110 people, authorities said. It was the third deadly wreck involving Amtrak in less than two months.
The Silver Star was on its way from New York to Miami around 2:45 a.m. when it plowed into the CSX train at an estimated 59 mph, Gov. Henry McMaster said.
NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said there were 135 passengers, along with nine crewmembers including the engineer aboard the train. The NTSB was still getting the final count on the number of conductors late Sunday afternoon.
The engineer – identified as Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia – and a conductor, identified as Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida – died in the crash.
“You would expect more fatalities, but God blessed us and we only had the two,” said Lexington County, South Carolina Coroner Margaret Fisher, “and not that they were in any way diminished, because my goodness, because they were very, very, hard. Very hard.”
The crash happened around a switchyard about 10 miles south of Columbia.
It happened near a stretch of tracks by a rail yard about 10 miles south of Columbia, where several track spurs split off for freight cars to be unloaded.
Among those on the train was New Jersey native Lauren Socha, who took photos and called her mother to tell she was OK. She was traveling to Florida, as was Derek Pattaway of Philadelphia.
“We were closer to the rear of the train in one of the sleeper cabins. Just when the accident happened, I mean I was dead asleep and I was awoken by the impact,” Pattaway said. “And then the crew came through really quickly, got everybody detrained in a really calm fashion, and then first responders showed up within, you know, 10 to 20 minutes.”
“It was real dark — a few train parts laying here, laying there; a lot of diesel fuel all over the ground,” said train passenger Izzachas Larison. “I was bounced off all the seats, and the seats was knocked off out of the floors.”
“There were bodies everywhere the seats came up off the floor,” said passenger Wendy Comerico. “Glass came out all over the train; just bodies lying everywhere on top of one another.”
Sumwalt explained that the Amtrak train – which had seven passenger cars and one locomotive – was operating from north to south on a straight track. The working theory was that the train was supposed to continue on the main track through a switch and head straight south.
Before the Amtrak train passed through the area, the CSX train – which had two locomotives at the front and 34 empty auto-rack cars – had been at a facility to unload the autos it had been hauling, Sumwalt said. The CSX train then backed into a spur along the side and parked there, Sumwallt said.
“The CSX was on the track it was supposed to be on,” McMaster said.
For whatever reason, the switch was “lined and locked,” and sent the Amtrak train onto the spur, Sumwalt said.
“Of course, key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way,” Sumwalt said.
The switch was locked into place with a padlock, as per protocol when switches are thrown manually, Sumwalt said.
The train had left New York Penn Station and was bound for Miami when Amtrak says it “came in contact with the CSX freight train around 2:35 am in Cayce. The lead engine derailed, as well as some passenger cars.
Sumwalt said the damage to the Amtrak train was “catastrophic.” As CBS2’s Lisa Rozner reported, the first car of Amtrak Train 91 was also left barely unrecognizable.
No one appears to have been aboard the CSX train at the time of impact.
The Lexington County Sheriff’s Office were among the first to respond to the scene. Meanwhile, dozens of those who were injured were treated at Palmetto Health Richland in Columbia, South Carolina.
“There were some significant injuries, including some solid organ injuries and head injuries,” said Dr. Eric Brown of Palmetto Health Richland. “But most of the patients that we’ve evaluated have had minor bumps, bruises; some lacerations requiring repair.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Adam Myrick says deputies took the uninjured in patrol cars to a shelter.
“We know they are shaken up quite a bit. We know this is like nothing else they have ever been through. So we wanted to get them out of the cold, get them out of the weather – get them to a warm place,” Myrick said.
McMaster said 116 people were taken to four hospitals. The main trauma hospital in the area had three patients in critical or serious condition, with the rest treated for minor injuries such as cuts, bruises and whiplash, said Dr. Steve Shelton, Palmetto Health director of emergency preparedness.
Many passengers were asleep with the train began shaking violently and then slammed to a halt, passenger Derek Pettaway told CBS News.
“You knew we’d hit something or we’d derailed,” he said.
Many of the passengers were asleep with the train began shaking violently and then slammed to a halt, passenger Derek Pettaway told CBS News.
“You knew we’d hit something or we’d derailed,” he said.
Local authorities said that 5,000 gallons of fuel had spilled in the crash, but that hazmat teams were dispatched and the fuel was thought not to be a danger to the public.
“CSX’s top priority is to help provide assistance to those who have been affected,” the freight company said in a statement to CBS News’ Kris Van Cleve.
President Donald Trump took to Twitter to offer his condolences, saying his thoughts and prayers were with the victims involved in the train collision.
Amtrak officials gathered up luggage and other belongings and within hours put passengers aboard buses to their destinations. Before being sent on their way, those who were not hurt were taken to a shelter, and local businesses provided coffee and breakfast.
“We know they are shaken up quite a bit. We know this is like nothing else they have ever been through. So we wanted to get them out of the cold, get them out of the weather — get them to a warm place,” sheriff’s spokesman Adam Myrick said.
An NTSB “Go Team” was dispatched to the scene to investigate the overnight collision, Sumwalt said.
A source with knowledge of the investigation told CBS News that investigators are focusing on the signal systems and whether they were working properly.
Sumwalt added that the NTSB crew had heard that the signals at the scene were “being worked on” at the time of the accident, but had yet to confirm the information late Sunday afternoon.
Former NTSB Chair and current CBS News Transportation Analyst Mark Rosenker says the fatal collision would have been avoided if positive train control was active along the route.
“It sees any type of obstruction on the rail itself,” he said Sunday. “If the engineer is not acting to stop the train, then the positive train control — the technology itself — takes over and then stops the train automatically.”
Rail riders at Penn Station told 1010 WINS’ Roger Stern recent crashes are on their mind, but in the end won’t stop them from getting to their destination.
“I don’t worry about things like that,” she said. “You’d never travel if you worry about things like that.”
Rosenker says the frequency of accidents Amtrak has recently played a role in is “unacceptable.”
On Wednesday, a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a strategy retreat slammed into a garbage truck at a crossing in rural Virginia, killing one person in the truck and injuring six others.
And on Dec. 18, an Amtrak train ran off the rails along a curve during its inaugural run on a route south of Tacoma, Washington, killing three people and injuring dozens. It was going nearly 80 mph, more than twice the speed limit.
Late Sunday, NTSB investigators were able to get their hands on the forward-facing video camera inside the Amtrak locomotive. That video is being sent to Washington to be analyzed.
Anyone with questions regarding passengers aboard the train is asked to call (800) 523-9101.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)