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Amtrak Survivors Tell Panel Scenes of Horror : Disaster: ‘I’m beginning to burn,’ trapped trainman said after cars plunged off a bridge in Alabama. Crew describes heroism, chaos.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Survivors testified vividly Monday about moments of terror, chaos and death after an Amtrak train plunged off a battered railroad bridge and into a foggy bayou near here last September, killing 47 of the 210 people aboard.

“I heard my friend calling, ‘I can’t get out! My door won’t open! I can’t get out,’ ” Charley Jones, a waiter on the ill-fated Sunset Limited train, said as he described the frantic attempts to escape from one of the burning railroad cars as it sank slowly into the murky water.

“He said, ‘Please help me, I’m beginning to burn,’ ” Jones recalled with a grimace. “I tried hard to get him out, but to no avail.”

The body of his friend, Roland Quaintance, 44, of Jackson, Miss., a fellow service attendant on the Los Angeles-to-Miami train, was among those recovered several days after the worst accident in Amtrak history.

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Jones, 57, was one of the first witnesses as the National Transportation Safety Board began three days of public hearings here on the crash.

Monday’s testimony by Jones; Michael Dopheide, 26, a passenger, and Gary Lee Farmer, 42, the train’s assistant conductor, provided a grim picture of what happened in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 22 at Bayou Canot, a tributary of the Mobile River about 10 miles north of this port city on the Gulf of Mexico.

The NTSB says it is still too early to determine the precise cause of the accident. However, board investigators say there is strong evidence that a Mobile River towboat, the Mauvilla, strayed into the bayou while lost in the fog and rammed the bridge with one of its barges about eight minutes before the train arrived. They said the impact apparently displaced some of the bridge’s girders by as much as 70 feet.

Farmer said he was sitting in the dining car near the rear of the train with another crew member, Dwight Thompson, as the Sunset Limited approached the Bayou Canot bridge at about 70 m.p.h., its normal operating speed along that stretch of track.

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At 2:53 a.m., eight minutes after the barge struck the bridge, the Sunset Limited hurtled onto the disabled structure, investigators said.

Three locomotive units, a baggage car, a crew dormitory car and two passenger cars tumbled into the bayou as part of the bridge under them collapsed. The three passenger cars and diner at the back of the train derailed, jerking to a stop atop the part of the bridge that remained in place.

“It was like flying into the side of a mountain,” Farmer said. “There was a horrendous initial impact; it felt as though the cars were telescoping into one another. . . . I was sliding down the aisle on my stomach and Mr. Thompson came sailing over my head.”

Jones was in the dormitory car, which fell into the bayou, caught fire and began to sink.

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“The bed had broken away from the wall and fallen on top of me,” he said. “Somehow, with the help of God, I was able to get out from under there.”

Jones said that, through the wall, he could hear the pleas for help from his friend, Quaintance, trapped in the debris of the adjoining compartment as the flames licked closer.

“It was no use,” Jones said. “The smoke was so intense I had to leave.”

In one of the passenger cars that had fallen into the water, Dopheide fumbled his way through “total darkness,” trying to find a way out.

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“I could feel the water running in,” he said. “I could hear the screams. . . . One woman begged me to find her twin sister. The water was up to my waist at that point. I knew time was of the essence.”

Farmer said he grabbed his radio, which was tuned to a railroad frequency, and broadcast a Mayday distress call.

The assistant conductor said he began working his way forward, trying to determine what had happened to the front of the train.

In the cars still on the bridge “it was sheer chaos,” he said. “People were all over the place. I yelled, ‘Clear the aisle! I’ve got to get through!’ They parted like the Red Sea.

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“When I got to the front, I could see that the bridge was gone,” he said. “There were people in the water. There were flames.”

Turning to the passengers in the cars still on the bridge, Farmer ordered them to leave their belongings behind and file slowly back to the rear of the train, where they could climb safely down onto the tracks.

“I have never seen people cooperate the way these people did,” he said. “They just filed out like schoolchildren do in a fire drill.”

Farmer said he then turned his attention to the people in the water, directing those who could swim to help those who could not in an effort to shepherd everyone to shore.

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One of those who helped was Dopheide, who had finally managed to find his way out of his sinking car and was pulling others out as best he could, keeping himself afloat by treading water and hanging onto floating debris.

Farmer said that as he peered out through the fog and smoke, he could see the Mauvilla, owned by the Warrior Gulf & Navigation Co., about 150 yards downstream, apparently working to secure the barges.

He said he remembers thinking, “I can’t understand why this guy is not here,” helping pluck people from the water.

Farmer said he jumped into the water to rescue an elderly woman being carried downstream by the current, then turned his attention to one of the train’s passenger cars in the water. It was rapidly sinking below the surface.

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“I thought that if I could get that end door open, maybe we could pull the people out,” he said. “But it just sank right there. That will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Farmer said that about 15 minutes after the train plunged from the bridge, the Mauvilla left its barges and began moving toward the wreckage, picking up survivors as it approached.

A short time later, a second tow boat--a Scott Paper Co. vessel apparently alerted by distress calls that by then were going out on a variety of frequencies--maneuvered up to the bridge and he clambered aboard, helping the boat’s crew pull survivors from the water. Dopheide apparently got on the same boat.

Jones said that after a while--he guessed it was about 45 minutes after the accident--he was pulled from atop a largely submerged car, where he had taken refuge. He climbed on board the Mauvilla.

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He said one of the crew members aboard the boat--he thinks it was the pilot, identified by the NTSB as Willie C. Odom--told him, “I think I’m going to lose my job.”

He said he asked the man why, and the man replied, “Because I hit the bridge. . . . I might even go to the penitentiary.”


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