Train From L.A. Derails in Arizona; 154 Injured

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An Amtrak train, rolling like a silver streak through the early morning darkness, plunged several feet down a sag in a flood-damaged bridge and derailed Saturday eight hours after leaving Los Angeles, injuring 154 of the 325 people on board. No one was killed.

Sparks flew as the engineer braked. One passenger hit the ceiling. Another slammed his head into a wall. Another felt like he was falling down a mountain, and still another thought he had been slapped. Many were rescued by a Boy Scout troop from Riverside heading to New Mexico for 10 days of backpacking.

The train, the Southwest Chief, was making its nightly run from the West Coast to Chicago. A manifest showed that 183 passengers had made reservations to get on in Los Angeles, said Steven Taubenkibel, an Amtrak spokesman in Washington. He added that he did not know how many actually boarded for the trip.

It was the second Amtrak derailment in Arizona in as many years. On Oct. 9, 1995, a passenger train hit a section of vandalized track near the town of Hyder, southwest of Phoenix, and toppled 30 feet from a trestle. One person was killed and 78 were injured. Authorities, including the FBI, spent months investigating, but who sabotaged the rails is still a mystery.

The FBI sent an agent to Kingman, about 40 miles from the California border, to investigate Saturday's derailment, but the Mohave County sheriff's office said there was no evidence of foul play. Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, walked the length of the wreckage and told reporters afterward: "The derailment was caused by bridge failure."

The Southwest Chief left Union Station in Los Angeles at 8:35 p.m., crossed the Arizona state line during the night and rolled through Kingman not long after 4 a.m. At 4:55, it approached the bridge, a small trestle over a shallow wash 13 miles northeast of town.

The wash is a flood-prone ravine, about 30 feet wide, and is dry most of the time. The train reportedly was traveling at 88 mph, below the 90 mph speed limit. The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad, owner of the track, said the speed was appropriate.

Heavy thunderstorms had struck during the night, and the railroad had sent an inspector along the track in a specially outfitted truck, railroad spokesman Jim Sabourin said. He said the inspector crossed the bridge about 2 1/2 hours before the train and saw no problems.

At one point in the darkness, however, the thunderstorms filled the ravine with a flash flood and washed out undergirding, Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan said. As the train started across, he said, the bridge sagged.

Three locomotives made it across, he said, but they separated from the fourth and from the rest of the train.

Only the first locomotive stayed on the tracks.

Behind it, the other three locomotives, along with seven baggage cars and nine passenger cars, derailed. One of the passenger cars, two decks high, came to rest straddling the wash.

All of the cars stayed upright. But they were jammed together like an accordion, and some of them zigzagged sharply along the roadbed.

Inside the train, April Wilson, 17, of Barstow was half dreaming when her train car went off the tracks.

"I was thinking about God, and the train was shaking, and it pushed me off the seat and threw me into the seat in front of me and to the floor," said the freckle-faced redhead, who was on her way to see her father in Flagstaff, Ariz., and to attend a wedding. "I was afraid we had hit something. It was pitch black. There were people everywhere. Everyone was screaming, and you couldn't see a thing."

She climbed out, along with several others. "I met a lot of friends," she said. "You bond instantly with these people."

Another teenager, Emily Laflin, 14, of Pittsburgh, Ind., was in a top bunk. "I thought we were falling down a mountain," she said. "I was waiting for the pain to come, because I thought we were all going to die."

David Albert, chief of on-board services for Amtrak, said: "It felt like the whole train jumped. I hit the ceiling. I was lying on a bed, and I hit the ceiling. That's how high I popped up."

'Like Riding a Magic Carpet'

Larry Johnston, a passenger from St. Louis, said: "It was like riding a magic carpet. You knew you weren't on the track. We bounded up and down a couple of times. We had no control."

His wife, Margaret, struck her head hard on a partition inside her train car. "I thought we were having an earthquake," she said, adding that she was bruised and her back hurt.

"There was a big jolt," said Larry Steppler of El Cajon, who was traveling with his wife and two sons. "Then a couple of more jolts, and the train stopped. I was walking through the aisle and got knocked on my butt.

"It felt like someone slapped me real hard."

Robert Sebastian of Norwich, Conn., said he was asleep when the derailment occurred. "I heard a bunch of bangs and looked out the window and saw sparks flying all over the place," he said. "I just lay there and held on."

Richard Elliott of Azusa was traveling with Rose Reyes, his fiancee, who is a nurse. "The railroad ties were all splintered, broken, cracked and pushed up," he said. "The tracks were pushed together too."

Reyes said she looked out and saw the wash below the bridge brimming with water. She said the sides of the ravine appeared to be crumbling.

"I woke up and everything was flying around," said Robert Boco, 17, who was visiting the United States from Vienna. He and several others from the lounge car staggered into a passenger car and found a man using a hammer to pry open a door.

A woman was locked in a toilet, Boco said, and the man used the hammer to get her out.

"There was a 10-year-old who was afraid because he wasn't able to find his parents," Boco said, adding that he too could see water rushing through the ravine.

Tony Smith, the scoutmaster of Troop 90 in Riverside, was on board with 30 Scouts and scoutmasters from a total of four Southern California troops. They were headed to New Mexico to go backpacking.

"When it started to derail, I stood up," Smith said. "It was like an E-ticket [ride] at Disneyland. We were bouncing around, and I knew we were in trouble. People were flying everywhere."

He said the Scouts went into action, calming passengers and helping rescuers apply bandages and carry the injured on gurneys to waiting helicopters.

"Our motto is to be prepared," Smith said. "People ask us, 'What are you going to be prepared for?' Our answer is, 'Anything.' These guys showed that today."

Tim Maggio, 15, one of the Riverside Scouts, said members often get chances to use their skills, but "usually not [in] this big of a situation."

Charles McNeil, of Bakersfield, said about the Boy Scouts: "They were great. They were carrying luggage, helping people, carrying stretchers. They were simply indispensable."

Their task, he said, was not easy. "There was no light. The lights went out. You just had to feel your way around."

Despite the terror, there was little panic.

"The scene went remarkably well," said Chuck Waalkens, paramedic supervisor for River Medical, an ambulance service. "I didn't see anybody panicking at all."

Most of the injured were taken by ambulance to Kingman Regional Medical Center. Others were evacuated by planes and helicopters to University Medical Center and Valley Hospital in Las Vegas, Flagstaff Medical Center and John C. Lincoln North Mountain Hospital in Phoenix.

'Today Was a Day of Miracles'

Officials at these facilities said they treated a total of 154 people. Of those, 14 were admitted, one in critical condition.

A Lincoln Hospital spokeswoman identified that patient as Francis Bendicion, who was flown to Phoenix after first being taken to the Kingman medical center. Carla Malvick, spokeswoman at that hospital, said he suffered a lower-back fracture with possible bone fragments in the spinal canal.

A brother said the injury was not life-threatening.

Bendicion, who is from the Philippines and had been visiting his family in Anaheim, was traveling to St. Louis and Chicago with four family members, including a brother-in-law, Bienvenido Tan, who suffered a sprained back. The others, including a young niece, were not hurt.

"Today was a day of miracles," Malvick said. Most of the injured were "walking wounded" who suffered minor injuries such as bumps and bruises.

About 15 people with very minor injuries were taken by bus to Bullhead Community Hospital in Bullhead City.

Sgt. B.R. Smith of the Arizona Highway Patrol was at the scene of a traffic accident when the train went off the tracks.

"Thank goodness no one was killed," he said.

He directed emergency vehicles to the scene, but only those with four-wheel drive were able to make it through the mud.

People who rode back in the ambulances "appeared pretty calm," Smith said. "But they looked bewildered."

Those without injuries were taken by bus to the gymnasium at the junior high school in Kingman, a city of about 12,000, where Red Cross and other volunteers offered comfort and help.

Dorothy Forgie of Davenport, Iowa, who had spent three weeks in Glendora visiting her sister, rested on a blanket on the gym floor, clutching a small pink teddy bear.

When she was asked about it, she began to weep.

"While I was sleeping," she said, "these two little girls [from Kingman] came by and left this for me. They wanted me to feel better. They gave me a big hug and asked if I was all right. I didn't know them from anybody. Their hearts are in the right place."

Forgie said she was impressed by the volunteers.

"So many people have come up and offered us anything we needed," she said. "One of the ladies hugged me, and I needed that hug more than she'll ever know."

Others who escaped unharmed were Elizabeth Rodda, 20, a student at College of the Canyons in Valencia, and her 14-year-old sister, Emily, who had been visiting from Illinois.

The sisters were seated in the upper section of a double-decked car when it lurched, lifting Emily out of her seat.

"I had to grab her to keep her from going down the stairs," Elizabeth said. "There were a bunch of little kids on the train. It's just a miracle that no one was seriously hurt or killed."

The mood inside the gym, said Capt. William Cobb, who heads the Salvation Army chapter in Kingman, "is, 'I want to go home where it's safe.' "

Some passengers made their own getaway. Rental cars in Kingman were sold out by midmorning.

At the scene of the derailment, Hall, the NTSB chairman, who headed a team of 14 investigators, told reporters that the train's data-event recorder would be analyzed for more information about the wreck.

An unanswered question, Hall said, was whether any high-water sensor devices had been installed and were operating along the track. He said those might have alerted the engineer to problems at the bridge.

It was still unclear, he said, whether water had washed over the tracks or had poured beneath the bridge with such force that it weakened the underpinnings.

One of his investigators said the bridge timbers had snapped.

The derailment and damaged track disrupted rail traffic all along the route of the popular Southwest Chief. Amtrak canceled Saturday night's scheduled departure from Los Angeles and said today's departure also might be affected.

Several freight trains also were affected.

The westbound Southwest Chief reached Los Angeles almost two hours after its scheduled 8:10 a.m. arrival time. Although no announcement was made en route, word about the derailment of its sister train reached some of the passengers.

Their train had passed the bridge shortly before the eastbound train went off the tracks.

"It's a blessing that we're here," said the Rev. James Cherry of the Holy Tabernacle Baptist Church in Inglewood, who was returning with his wife from a church retreat in New Mexico.

"We said a prayer for those people," he said.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Abigail Goldman, David Haldane, Myron Levin, Patrick McDonnell, Ken Ellingwood and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles, Nick Anderson in Orange County, and special correspondent Dave Hawkins in Kingman.

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