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Amtrak Train Derails Outside Of Washington, More Than 90 Reported Hurt

Jul 30, 2002 | AP A double-decker Amtrak train derailed in the summer heat outside Washington, injuring more than 90 people, about 30 of them seriously, authorities said.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators, and an expert said they would probably try to determine whether the heat had caused the track to buckle. Temperatures were in the mid-90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius).

The train, the Capitol Limited en route from Chicago to the nation's capital with 173 passengers and crew members, jumped the tracks 10 miles (16 kilometers) from its destination at about 1:55 p.m. Monday (1755 GMT), authorities said.

"I was terrified," said 18-year-old Sincere Harris of Philadelphia, who escaped the derailed train with her father, brother and a cousin. "I just had to tell myself, be strong."

Harris said she climbed back into the train to help free her 46-year-old mother, who was trapped in a bathroom.

Six of the train's 13-cars lay on their side next to big trees that were smashed to pieces. Rescue workers lifted passengers out through the windows. Dazed-looking people wandered on the tracks as emergency workers tended to the injured. Several people were taken away on stretchers.

Six people were trapped in the cars, but all were freed within an hour, Montgomery County Fire Department spokesman Oscar Garcia said.

NTSB vice chairwoman Carol Carmody said during a news conference Monday night that 97 people had been hurt and six of them were in critical condition.

Carmody said two recorders — similar to a plane's black boxes — had been recovered. She said they would provide information such as the speed of the train and what the engineer was doing, such as braking or throttling.

A stretch of damaged track ran about 150 yards (137 meters) along the accident site, ties ripped from the gravel bed and the rails twisted. The track is owned, operated and maintained by freight railroad CSX Corp.

CSX spokesman Dan Murphy said the speed limit on that stretch is 70 mph (113 kph) and early indications are that the Amtrak train was going 57 mph (92 kph) to 60 mph (97 kph).

He said the section of track where the derailment happened was last inspected visually on Sunday. He said the last train that passed through before the wreck was a freight that went by about 45 minutes earlier and reported nothing unusual.

Former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz said investigators will probably look at whether heat warped the track.

Carmody said the track is a continuous welded rail, and "heat can be a factor and cause a slight misshaping or buckling in the rail."

Steve Colburn, who works at a nearby tire shop, said the accident "sounded like someone took a big trash truck and was trying to empty it."

Robert Bailey of Capitol Heights, Maryland, said he and his wife crawled through a window after the car they were riding in turned over.

"Lots of screaming and hollering. It was pandemonium in there," said Bailey, who was taking the train home after a vacation in Michigan.

The passengers later boarded a bus for Washington's Union Station, where relatives waited outside the gate where the train was supposed to arrive.

In 1996, the Capitol Limited and a Maryland commuter train collided in nearby Silver Spring, killing all three crew members and eight passengers on commuter train.

The accident comes at a particularly difficult time for Amtrak, which is trying to emerge from its worst budget crisis in its 31-year history.

Amtrak has struggled to maintain full service this year because nearly 100 of its cars and locomotives are damaged and out of service. Low on cash, Amtrak has not been able to get the cars back on the tracks.

"The equipment supply was maxed out as it was," said Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Van Veen. It's possible some trains will have to run with fewer cars until repairs are made, she said.

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