South Carolina train crash leaves 2 dead, dozens hurt

An Amtrak passenger train slammed into a freight train parked on a side track in South Carolina early Sunday, killing two Amtrak crew members and injuring more than 110 people, authorities said. It was the third deadly wreck involving Amtrak in less than two months.

Amtrak’s Silver Star was on its way from New York to Miami with 145 people aboard, including nine crew members, around 2:35 a.m. ET when it plowed into the CSX train at an estimated 94 km/h, Gov. Henry McMaster said. The crash happened around a switchyard about 16 kilometres south of Columbia.

McMaster said the first 911 call came in at 2:34 a.m. ET after the moving Amtrak train collided with the freight train, which was stationary. He said the two people who were killed were both Amtrak employees and that 116 people from the passenger train were taken to area hospitals.

Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher identified the two dead as engineer Michael Kempf, 46, of Savannah, Ga., and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Fla.

Train Crash South Carolina

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, right, told reporters it appears the CSX train was ‘on the right track’ and the Amtrak train was ‘on the wrong track’ at the time of the collision. (Jeff Blake/Associated Press)

Officials have said they don’t believe there was anyone aboard the freight train at the time of the crash. 

CSX train on the right track

McMaster said the Amtrak train hit the CSX train at an estimated 94 km/h in a switchyard, where several lines split off for freight cars to be unloaded. He said investigators have yet to determine how the Amtrak train ended up on that stretch of track.

“The CSX was on the track it was supposed to be on,” McMaster said.

“It’s a horrible thing to see, to understand the force involved,” he said after touring the scene.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which held a briefing Sunday afternoon in Cayce, said an Amtrak outward-facing video was recovered and sent to its lab in Washington, D.C. But the event recorders have not been found.

NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said at the news conference the key to the investigation will be why a switch was turned to force the Amtrak train onto a side track and into a parked freight train. Sumwalt said that the switch was padlocked to send trains on the main line to the side track, which conductors are supposed to do when they change lines.

“Key to this investigation is learning why the switch was lined that way,” he said, calling the damage to the locomotives 

He said the freight train crew took the CSX train from one side track across the main line and back to another side track after unloading automobiles. Sumwalt said investigators don’t know if the signals further up the line indicated the train had been switched off the main route. 

NTSB experts will be on site for the next five to seven days. Another NTSB briefing is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Amtrak President Richard Anderson appeared to point the finger at CSX, saying the signal system run by the freight railroad at that spot was down at the time, and CSX dispatchers were manually routing trains.

The only way the Amtrak train could have gotten onto the siding was for a switch to have been thrown, Anderson said.

CSX issued a statement expressing condolences but said nothing about the cause of the accident.

South Caroline train derailment

At least two people are dead and many others injured after a passenger train collided with a freight train in South Carolina as many passengers slept while heading from New York to Miami. (Twitter/@CountyLex)

In an emailed statement earlier, Amtrak said that it was “deeply saddened” by the deaths and that it was co-operating fully with the NTSB. It did not address the cause of the crash but said CSX maintains all of the tracks and signal systems where the accident happened and controls access to the sidings and yards.

Many passengers were asleep when the train began shaking violently and then slammed to a halt, passenger Derek Pettaway told CBS. He said he himself was asleep in one of the rear cars when he was jolted awake.

“You knew we’d hit something or we’d derailed,” he said.

The Amtrak train’s lead engine and some of the passenger cars derailed, Amtrak said. TV footage showed the locomotive on its side, its front crumpled.

1 in critical condition

Three of the injured were admitted to hospital, officials said. Dr. Steve Shelton, a spokesperson for Palmetto Health, said one of the injured is in critical condition.

“Two others are in serious condition. A few others are being assessed for serious conditions,” he said.

South Caroline train crash

The crash occurred early Sunday near Charleston Highway and Pine Ridge Road in Cayce, just south of Columbia, S.C. (CBC)

Amtrak officials worked to gather luggage and other belongings and line up buses to take passengers on to their destinations. Those who weren’t hurt were taken in patrol cars to a shelter, and local businesses provided coffee and breakfast.

“We know they are shaken up quite a bit. We know this is like nothing else they have ever been through. So we wanted to get them out of the cold, get them out of the weather — get them to a warm place,” sheriff’s spokesperson Adam Myrick said.

The White House said U.S. President Donald Trump has been briefed on the accident and is receiving regular updates.

On Wednesday, a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a strategy retreat slammed into a garbage truck at a crossing in rural Virginia, killing one person in the truck and injuring six others.

And on Dec. 18, 2017, an Amtrak train ran off the rails along a curve during its inaugural run on a route south of Tacoma, Wash., killing three people and injuring dozens. It was going nearly 130 km/h, more than twice the speed limit.​

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