Towboat's Crew in Amtrak Crash Elusive : Inquiry: Interview requests are referred to attorneys. Investigators retrieve data recorder, hope to pinpoint train's speed, track conditions.

from Times Wire Services

Investigators retrieved a data recorder that could pinpoint the time of Amtrak's worst disaster, but they had no luck trying to interview the crew of a towboat whose runaway barge struck a railroad bridge.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said they hope that the recorder will provide them with crucial information about the Sunset Limited's speed and the track's condition when the train plunged from a trestle and into a bayou on Wednesday, killing 47 passengers and crew members. Officials said 163 people survived the pre-dawn wreck.

The wood-and-steel bridge hit by the barge a few moments earlier gave way, plunging three locomotives and four passenger cars into the water and mud.

Work crews raised a second locomotive and all but two of the train cars from the 30-foot deep water on Saturday. Authorities expect to have the remaining sections of the train cleared by today, said Donna Rohrer, a CSX Transportation Inc. spokeswoman in Jacksonville, Fla. CSX owns the track.

The bodies of three engineers were recovered Friday from the lead locomotive, which also contained a data recorder.

The recorder was being sent to a laboratory in Rockville, Md., for study. NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said that the device could pinpoint the time of the derailment "down to the second it occurred."

Coast Guard Capt. Ed Murphy and local law enforcement officials held a news conference Saturday to recap emergency response, but Murphy said the NTSB had asked them not to discuss the inquiry.

Federal investigators have confirmed that a barge struck the 84-year-old bridge just before the train wreck. A key step now in determining how the barge got loose from its towboat is interviewing the crew.

The NTSB wants to know just what happened aboard the towboat, Lopatkiewicz said, but investigators were referred to the crew members' attorneys when they tried to ask questions Friday.

The crew of the MV Mauvilla, operated by Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., radioed the Coast Guard Wednesday morning that part of its tow had gotten loose, and again 12 minutes later to notify the Coast Guard of the train wreck.

Asked Saturday about efforts to question the crew, Warrior & Gulf spokesman George Nelson in Houston said: "Generally, in cases like this, where criminal charges are being contemplated--especially where the FBI gets involved in the investigation--all participants get extremely goosey."

Alcohol breath tests administered to the crew by the company nine hours after the accident proved negative, an NTSB investigator said. But the length of time that expired before the tests could compromise their integrity, he said.

The investigators were waiting for results of urine tests.

Warrior & Gulf Navigation general manager Andrew Harris said the firm is conducting its own investigation.

The bridge could be rebuilt in two weeks, CSX officials said. Engineers say 200 feet of the 500-foot bridge will have to be replaced.

The city of Mobile shelved plans for a Sunday memorial service for Sunset Limited passengers after all crash survivors left for home.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World