The Amtrak Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Miami with 206 people aboard hurtled off an aging trestle early Wednesday and plunged like a steel stone into a foggy Alabama bayou, killing 44 and leaving at least three others trapped in wreckage that sank into an ink-black swamp crawling with snakes and alligators.
A locomotive erupted into flames, burning its crew. Fire spread to the wood-and-steel trestle. One of the coach cars hung over the edge of the 84-year-old structure but did not fall. Riders, many of them asleep when the train derailed at 2:47 a.m. local time, screamed and scrambled through the wreckage. Several rescued others, including a 3-year-old boy.
The FBI said a tugboat pushing six barges loaded with concrete and coal might have rammed and weakened the trestle shortly before the Sunset Limited arrived. “One of those barges has a big dent in it,” said special agent Chuck Archer in Mobile, Ala. He said concrete had been broken away from the foundation of the trestle and that pieces of concrete were found on the barge.
Amtrak said it was the worst train wreck in its history. The toll could eclipse the cumulative total of 48 people killed in all crashes on Amtrak since it was created 23 years ago to run the nation’s long-distance passenger trains. Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom, who flew over the bayou as smoke and steam rose from the wreckage, said, “It was the most terrible sight I have ever witnessed.”
About 40 people on the train when it crashed had boarded in Los Angeles, an Amtrak official said. There was no immediate word on whether any of them were among the fatalities. Authorities said they did not expect to complete a list of the dead before today. They said most of the victims were found inside the train cars. Five of the injured were hospitalized in critical condition.
The Sunset Limited, which became a coast-to-coast train five months ago by extending the eastern end of its run from New Orleans to Miami, carried 189 passengers and a crew of 17. It left Los Angeles on Sunday, changed crews in New Orleans and headed toward Alabama. Shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday, it approached the trestle over Bayou Canot about 10 miles north of Mobile.
An hour earlier, a 132-car CSX freight train with three locomotives had crossed the trestle without mishap.
The trestle speed limit for passenger trains is 70 m.p.h. It was not known how fast the Sunset Limited was rolling. Like almost everyone, Mike Dopheide, 26, of Omaha, Neb., was asleep. He had gotten on in Los Angeles after visiting his sister in Highland Park. “Suddenly I was bumped on the floor, and you could hear the brakes squealing,” he said afterward. “I knew then that we had derailed.”
It was dark. Flames spread from one of the three locomotives, Dopheide said, and people around him could not find emergency exits. He said his car began filling with water and smoke.
“Oh, my God!” a woman shouted. “We’re going to die.”
Dopheide finally found a door and tried to open it. It would not budge. Then he noticed a piece of timber. It had smashed through a window, he said, and was keeping the car from submerging completely. But he saw that it offered a way to escape. He climbed through the window and out onto the timber.
He saw four Amtrak crew members standing on the roof of one of the locomotives.
“Did you radio for help?” Dopheide shouted.
“No,” one of them replied. “There’s no radios.”
Around him Dopheide saw a tragedy. All three locomotives and four of the eight cars on the train were off the bridge and in the bayou. One of the cars was for baggage, another was a dormitory car for the crew. The other two were passenger coaches.
The water was 25 feet deep. One of the coach cars was covered completely. The nose of the 80-foot lead locomotive was buried in bayou silt. Its crew members were still inside. A lounge car, a dining car, a sleeping car and a coach car were standing on the trestle.
A third of the coach car hung over the edge.
In the glow from the burning locomotive, survivors--joined by rescuers in helicopters and nearby residents in boats--tried to save as many people as possible. Several of the passengers were elderly. Dopheide helped eight of them through the timber-shattered window.
A tugboat appeared, shining a high-intensity beam of light on the wreckage. The tug inched its way to the side of the railroad cars, but it pushed too much debris against them to get close. It backed away and sent in two flat-bottomed skiffs.
Dopheide helped his eight survivors onto the boats.
Others climbed out of the train. They grabbed wooden debris to stay afloat until more help arrived. Dopheide was suddenly aware of the silence.
“Most people weren’t saying anything to me because they were too frightened to talk,” he said. “They were just holding onto debris or to each other. One lady was holding onto someone’s belt.”
Before long, the fire spread along the trestle and drew closer to wrecked cars.
Dopheide said he climbed back inside to see if anyone had been left behind. He searched for his glasses. People shouted at him, he said, asking him to look for medicine and purses. He said he threw out some duffel bags--but could not find his own belongings.
Then he scrambled back out to safety.
The bayou is home to snakes and alligators, some say bears as well. While alligators normally flee a disturbance as big as a train crash, some passengers in the water-filled cars worried about the snakes, which might be more venturesome.
“The car we were in sank,” said Robert Watts, 61, a retired fire captain from Placerville, Calif. Finally, he said, someone opened a safety exit and the water poured in, cold and fast.
“I guess I was physically moving,” Watts said later, “but I wasn’t mentally coherent until the water rose to my waist and I realized, ‘Hey this is serious, this is not a damn dream.’ ”
He said the water swirled like a whirlpool in a kitchen sink.
At one point, Watts thought he would die. “I thought, ‘This is it. I’m ending my life here.’ ”
A woman with a 3-year-old boy shouted from across the aisle. “The mother hollered to take the baby. I took him and shoved him out and hollered for someone to take the baby. Someone did. And all of us bailed out.”
Watts said he and his wife Betty, 58, along with several others held onto floating railroad ties. “My wife and I didn’t get to the same railroad tie, but we kept within eyesight.”
Every time he looked at his wife, he said, she seemed farther away. “But things were happening so fast,” he said, “there was no time to get scared.”
It was difficult, he said, to push the ties against the current in the bayou.
Watts said he and his wife were in the water for about 30 minutes before they reached safety. Ashore, he found the 3-year-old and his mother.
“That little boy never fussed or bothered. He just thought, ‘Hey, this is a great game!’ ”
Not far away, Al Paiz, 52, of Mora, N.M., watched another rescue.
Seated next to him in one of the train cars was Fred Russell, 70, of Indio, Calif. “There was suddenly a roller coaster sensation,” Paiz said. “Then the train was skidding on the track. It jumped, and everybody started sliding.”
When the car finally came to rest, Paiz said, Russell pulled out a man who had gotten trapped under a seat. Together, Russell and Paiz opened an emergency window. It was a long drop to the water below.
Paiz said they heard noises.
“There was a kid in the water having trouble,” Paiz said. “He could not swim. Fred jumped out the window and dropped 20 feet to the water below to help.”
Paiz, who cannot swim, said he admired his septuagenarian seatmate for taking that plunge. For his part, Paiz said he helped other passengers out through a window on the lower side of his car. He said he was the last to leave.
“I’m sure some of the people didn’t get out,” Paiz said, through tears.
Paiz was on his way to Miami for open heart surgery. He said he tried to stay calm as he finally dropped from one of the lower windows six feet down into the water.
The water was over his head, he said, and he held onto beams from the bridge until a boat came by and rescued him.
He was pronounced in good condition at a nearby hospital. He said Fred Russell reached shore safely as well.
By now, divers were going through submerged portions of the railroad cars hand over hand.
“Search conditions are very difficult because of the murky waters,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dwight McGee. “It’s frustrating when you know that there are survivors in need and you can’t help.”
The divers lifted bodies onto a barge. From there, they were taken to a lumber mill in the nearby town of Chickasaw. It served as a temporary morgue.
At one point during the afternoon, the search for bodies and survivors was suspended when it became apparent that a crane was needed to stabilize one of the railroad cars before divers could enter it safely.
“It shifted with the current and the weight inside,” said Mobile Police Chief Harold Johnson. “We’re trying to stabilize it because we don’t want any more fatalities.”
When asked whether the engineer of the train had been interviewed about possible causes for the accident, Johnson replied: “We believe he is underwater.”
Archer, special agent in charge of the Mobile office of the FBI, said his investigators were looking into three possible causes: sabotage, structural defects and the likelihood that the bridge had been rammed by barges.
He placed most of his emphasis upon the barges. The tugboat pushing them might have taken a wrong channel during the foggy night, he said. They were found lashed together and moored in the Mobile River about a quarter of a mile from the crash site.
“We’re looking at them,” he said, “because one of those barges has a big dent in it.”
Agents interviewed the tug operator but declined to identify him or reveal what he said.
Archer said the barges were not supposed to be in the waterway. The bayou is too shallow under the trestle, he said, and the bridge supports are not wide enough to accommodate barge traffic.
John Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, also investigating the crash, said scrape marks on the barge seemed to match scrape marks on the trestle.
Times staff writers Richard E. Meyer and Nora Zamichow in Los Angeles and David G. Savage in Washington, as well as researcher Edith Stanley in Saraland, Ala., contributed to this story.
The crash occurred in a remote area north of downtown Mobile. Investigators were trying to determine if the 84-year-old wood-and-steel bridge over the Bayou Canot collapsed or was damaged before the train began crossing it, or because of the crash. The train was bound from Los Angeles to Miami.