One person was killed and more than 100 others, including several children, were injured Monday as the Amtrak Sunset Limited derailed at a bridge over a dry wash in the Arizona desert on tracks that authorities said were sabotaged, apparently by a domestic group calling itself the "Sons of Gestapo."
The train, rolling through the early morning like a silver ghost, was carrying 248 passengers and 20 crew members from Miami to Los Angeles. It hit the broken tracks 27 miles east of this small town shortly after 1 a.m. local time. Passengers screamed. Children cried. One woman shouted the names of her babies over and over in the dark.
One crew member, Mitchell Bates, 41, a sleeping-car attendant based in Los Angeles, was thrown against the wall of his dormitory compartment and killed. Amtrak counted 78 injured, five critically. The injured included a woman on her honeymoon and a 3-month-old boy. Sheriff's deputies said more than 20 others suffered less serious injuries.
As rescuers arrived, authorities disclosed that:
* The saboteurs connected two 39-foot sections of rail with a red electrical cord to keep circuitry intact and train signals green. They unbolted and removed a 36-inch steel bar that joins the rail sections and pulled out 29 spikes to loosen the tracks from their wooden crossties, just around a curve in front of a wooden trestle 30 feet above the wash.
* A manifesto left at the tracks referred to federal sieges near Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Ida., rallying causes for anti-government groups. The message was described as "anti-ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms], anti-FBI, anti-government." It was signed, "Sons of Gestapo." Anti-terrorism experts said they knew of no such group.
* The saboteurs picked a particularly isolated spot. Rescuers set up a triage center on the desert, at a dirt road six miles from the crash. Firemen sprayed the ground with water to control dust as helicopters arrived with the injured. Some were flown directly to hospitals and others to a second triage center, a Phoenix shopping center that was closed so the helicopters could land.
Investigators from the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Maricopa County sheriff's office converged at the wreckage. In Washington, Thomas M. Downs, president and chairman of Amtrak, told reporters that "someone obviously intended to drop the train off the tracks into the ravine." Two cars toppled and a third hung at the edge.
"Whoever did this," Downs said, "knew enough to wire around the signal system."
Downs said Amtrak had increased security as a result, but he declined to say how. Downs also declined to assign blame or motive for the sabotage. "I find it despicable," he declared, "that anyone would jeopardize the lives of passengers and crew for any purpose."
The crash occurred a little more than 50 miles southwest of Phoenix as the train crossed the bridge at 50 m.p.h. A recorder that tracks speed, acceleration and other information was recovered. Investigators said they could not find any equipment problems.
An engineer reported seeing something unusual, said Sheriff's Sgt. Tim Campbell. But it was too late, Campbell said. The train's two diesel locomotives made it across the loosened rails and over the trestle, but a dormitory car for crew members, two sleeping cars for passengers and a dining car left the rails.
The sleeping cars fell on their sides. One tumbled into the ravine. The dining car dangled off the bridge and into the wash.
Darryl Taylor, 29, of Inglewood, Calif., an Amtrak chef, was asleep in the dormitory car. He heard a loud screech. "It felt like the train took a bunny hop," he said, "and I went flying through the air and smashed against a window."
"I had no clothes on. It was very dark. I was stumbling around for shoes and clothes. I heard another employee scream, 'Darryl, I can't get out. Please help me. My door is locked.' "
Taylor told the employee, a woman, to use a window.
"I climbed out of a window and emerged on top of the car," he said. "We got sledgehammers from emergency cases and started breaking windows. I was hurt, but my adrenaline was flowing, and I had to help. Some of us dropped down into the cars and tied sheets around the injured.
"Then we pulled them up through the windows. We rescued 75 to 80 people that way."
Suddenly, Taylor said, he and others realized that Bates, the sleeping car attendant, was not with them. They returned to the dormitory car.
"I broke the glass in his room because the door was locked shut," Taylor said. "We pulled the mattresses back, and then we found him. His face was smashed into the glass on the other side of the car, and his body was all twisted. He was dead.
"He was a friend of mine. We didn't want to believe he was dead. We tried to find a pulse, but we couldn't. There was a lady, a nurse, who said, 'Don't move him.'
"I sat down and cried. I was scared.
"We couldn't get the injured off of the train, so we laid them on top of the cars on mattresses and blankets. People were crying, looking for their wives, looking for loved ones. It was chaos. Some [of the elderly] were crying for oxygen tanks, high blood pressure medicine, heart medicine."
A number of the younger men crawled back into the cars, Taylor said, to retrieve whatever medicine they could find.
Taylor was taken to Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, where he was admitted with head injuries. "If it was an accident, you could live with that, maybe," he said. "But someone murdered Mr. Bates.
"That's the hurting thing."
Among those who helped Taylor rescue injured passengers was Larry Marta, 39, a construction worker heading home to Seattle after taking the Sunset Limited across the country.
He traveled by train because he was afraid of flying.
Marta was awake when the train cars derailed. He climbed out of an observation car. "Then I see all this carnage," he recalled, "and I said, 'Holy s---!'
He climbed into several of the toppled cars and pulled people up through the windows. One was a woman in her mid-20s whose face was bleeding badly. "She was cold and panicking and losing a lot of blood," Marta said, "I just said, 'Be cool . . . you are going to be all right. ' "
Marta took off his coat and gave it to her. He found a sheet inside a sleeping car, ripped it up and bandaged her head.
A man in his 70s or 80s appeared to have been blinded and was very confused, Marta said. He found another sheet, lowered it through a window, looped it under the man's armpits like a lasso and hoisted him halfway to a window.
Others helped pull him out.
"I was scared I was going to pull their arms out of their sockets," Marta said of the elderly. But he figured it would be better than leaving them inside the train. "We didn't know if it was going to roll over again."
Moreover, he said, the train cars had an acrid smell. "It was a very, very strong electrical burning smell." Marta said at least one car started hissing.
"There were a lot of heroes on that train," he added. "We got almost everybody out before any rescue people got there."
Dennis Dowell, a sheriff's deputy and emergency medical technician, arrived to find many of the victims where Taylor and Marta had been forced to leave them, on top of the toppled train cars.
'It Was Horrible'
"It was horrible," Dowell said. "People were groaning and screaming and yelling for help. The tops of the fallen cars were littered with bodies, bloodied and injured. There were a lot of children, but they had been separated from the adults and were yelling for their parents."
One of Dowell's fellow deputies was asked what he thought should be done to the saboteurs. "I think hanging them from that very trestle," he replied, "would be appropriate."
"Show no mercy," he said. "Whoever did this is a pretty lowlife. . . . He's just a sick puppy."
Marta said he understood frustration with government and law enforcement, but "I don't have any any concept, any concept in my life, where [the saboteurs'] heads are at. They're definitely demented. These guys were trying to kill people."
"They were out for blood," he said.
As helicopters took the injured from the train cars to the triage center, Eldon Bradbury of the American Red Cross said "it was like a war scene."
"Chopper after chopper coming in with injured, and we were afraid of dying people," Bradbury said. "It's nothing you can train for. People were screaming in pain, and we did everything we could for them. Some were dazed and kept asking where they were."
Phyllis Hellwig, 63, a passenger and an operating room nurse at a hospital in Castro Valley, Calif., administered first aid. She said it was dark, and nobody had water or blankets.
"Everybody was frightened," she said. "They were cold, and they were thirsty."
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said two men were questioned about the sabotage. They were spotted by helicopter three miles away, Arpaio said, but he did not think they were involved.
"We got a murder to solve here," Arpaio said, angrily. "We started out thinking it was an accident, but changed our minds very quickly. Somebody was trying to kill people out there, and we're going to find them."
Deputies found the message at the scene referring to the Waco and Ruby Ridge stand-offs. "That's what leads me to believe this is a terrorist attack," Arpaio told the Associated Press. Asked who might be responsible, he said, "It leans toward the domestic side."
Arpaio said the message was signed, "Sons of Gestapo."
Roberto Concepcion, a bartender on the train, told reporters that a passenger approached him after the wreck and handed him a piece of paper.
"The passenger said he found it under the tracks and that it was left there obviously so that people could see it," Concepcion said. He described the paper as a manifesto and said it was typewritten, one page long and unsigned.
"It was anti-ATF, anti-FBI and anti-government," Concepcion said. He said he gave it to a sheriff's deputy at the scene.
The same passenger told Concepcion about 20 minutes later that he had discovered a stack of the manifestoes across the tracks from where he had found the first one.
Larry McCormick, acting special agent for the FBI in Phoenix, would not comment on the manifestoes or on whether he had ever heard of any group called the "Sons of Gestapo."
But McCormick said flatly: "We are positively convinced this is a criminal act. This was no accident."
Sheriff's Lt. Tom Cheetam said it was no coincidence that the sabotage occurred "in the middle of nowhere."
"If you wanted to do something like this," Cheetam said, "and hurt people, and keep people from getting in to rescue them, this is where you would do it."
A railroad inspector who declined to be identified said: "He [the saboteur] knew what he was doing.
"He knew how to keep the train moving and then derail it when it went over the trestle."
Downs, the Amtrak president, echoed the thought at a news conference in Washington. He called it "a unique accident, because it does not appear to be accidental."
Whoever tampered with the rails, he said, removed the bolts from a 36-inch-long "rail joint bar" that connects two 39-foot sections of rail, keeping them stable. When there is a break in continuity, however, electronic circuitry is broken, he said, and a red warning light appears on signals along the track.
So, Downs said, someone wired around the break to keep the circuitry intact and keep the signals green.
Such a task, said Dennis F. Sullivan, Amtrak's chief operating officer, would take anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the safety system only about 10 minutes.
The last train to use the tracks before the Sunset Limited was a freight that crossed the trestle about 6 a.m. Sunday, giving the saboteurs 18 hours to do their work.
Derailing or wrecking a train involved in interstate commerce or its track or trestle is a federal felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. If death results from the crime, the death penalty can be imposed.
The Sunset Limited left Miami on Friday, but because of damage from Hurricane Opal, passengers were transferred to buses for a section of the journey from Jacksonville, Fla., to New Orleans.
Its regular route, about 3,000 miles, passes through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona on the way to California.
Times staff writers Robert L. Jackson in Washington and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Investigators says it appears the 12-car train jumped the track after rails were tampered with:
* 20-30 foot stretch loosened
* A 36-inch tie bar that keeps rails in line was unbolted.
* A wire was attached to disable an electronic system that would have warned the crew of a break in the line.
Amtrak said people who want to find out if their relatives were aboard the train can call 800-523-9101.
Source: Associated Press