Amtrak Passengers Describe Ordeal

Feb 4, 2018

Upon release from the hospital, train passengers were brought to the Red Cross reception area at a middle school in West Columbia.
Credit Alex Olgin / WFAE

Federal investigators are trying to determine why a switch was in the wrong position early Sunday morning near Columbia, S..C.

It had fatal consequences.

An Amtrak passenger train was diverted onto the wrong track and into a parked freight train. Two people were killed, and over 100 were injured.

 

Amtrak President Richard Anderson says CSX runs the signal system along the stretch of track where Sunday’s crash and derailment occurred. He says the system was down at the time of the wreck in Cayce, S.C. As a result, he says CSX dispatchers had to route trains manually. The National Transportation Safety Board is working to confirm that, but the board’s chairman says investigators found a track switch had been set in a position that forced the Amtrak train off the main track.  

It was the third deadly crash involving Amtrak in less than two months. Governor Henry McMaster said these accidents raise questions about train safety. 

"I'm sure it will prompt a renewed conversation around the country," he said. "We cannot have these kind of accidents.”

This crash comes less than a week after an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress hit a truck in Virginia.  

Sunday's Amtrak train going from New York to Miami hit a parked CSX freight train in Cayce -- oustide Columbia, S.C. -- at about 2:45 a.m. Gov Henry McMaster said the train was going about 60 mph. The Lexington County coroner said the conductor and engineer aboard the Amtrak train were killed. There were about 139 passengers aboard.

“It was a really traumatic experience and caught me off guard," said Daniel Phillip-Edward Maree, a passenger from California. He was in the third train car from the front. He said closed his eyes right before the crash.

"I flew forward, hit the seat in front of pretty badly, busted my lip, hit my head really hard," Maree said. "I stumbled a little bit tried to get up and fell down.

Maree said he then sprang into action to help those around him with the little medical knowledge he had gained from family members who are nurses.

“There were passengers with cuts on their legs," he said. "One woman I believe broke her leg.  [I] tried to do as much as I could to assist wrap wounds to kind of stop the bleeding.”

He and many others were taken to the hospital.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Traffic Safety Board, said the Amtrak train was diverted from its expected route onto a side track where the CSX train was parked because a switch was locked with a padlock.   

“Key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way," Sumwalt said."

Sumwalt said the NTSB will look at the operations of the trains, signals and schedules for the crews of each train, as is standard in any investigation. Investigators will also interview crews from both Amtrak and CSX, looking for recorders on the trains as well as other records to sort out why the crash happened. Sumwalt says there was catastrophic damage to both trains.

The Red Cross set up a shelter in a nearby middle school for passengers to get food water and figure out their next step.

Passenger Al Willie Williams was on her way home to Denmark, SC. She had her bag ready to get off at the next stop around 2:35 a.m. Sunday morning when the crash happened. She, like many others, was still trying to calm herself down Sunday afternoon.

“Truthfully, it happened so fast and then when I woke up I was just devastated," Williams said. 

Williams was taken to the hospital along with more than 100 other passengers. She has a sling for her left arm, and says her shoulder, neck, back and legs hurt from the crash. She came to the Red Cross shelter to get her luggage. That’s where passengers were taken after being discharged from the hospital, and where Regina Reed came looking for her aunt who she heard was on the train. 

Reed was concerned because she hadn't heard from her aunt for hours.

"Her phone went dead because she was talking to another relative," she said. 

Reed finally found her at a local hospital after three hours of searching. Reed says her aunt is OK, just sore and scared.