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Four Dead, 133 Hurt in Derailment of Amtrak Auto Train in Northern Florida

Apr 19, 2002 | AP

U.S. rail officials worked through twisted rails, overturned cars and crushed trees Friday, trying to learn what caused a derailment that killed four people and injured 133 others.

Fourteen of the 16 passenger cars on the Amtrak Auto Train — a favorite among tourists traveling between Washington and Orlando's theme parks — went off the tracks in Thursday's accident.

As National Transportation Safety Board investigators did their work, a heavy switching engine began the arduous process of clearing the busy track by moving about a half dozen upright train cars away from the wreckage.

The death toll had been reported at six Thursday, but was revised downward Friday by investigators and medical officials, Lt. Bill Leeper of the Florida Highway Patrol.

It could not be immediately determined why the train derailed, officials said. The track had been inspected hours before the crash and had been in good condition.

"Apparently the engineer went into an emergency braking mode — we don't know why," said highway patrol spokesman Chuck Williams.

Amtrak said the train, which carries passengers as well as their autos between Sanford, Florida, and Lorton, Virginia, was carrying 440 passengers and 28 crew members. The train left Sanford after 4 p.m. and derailed about an hour later 60 miles ( 100 kilometers) north of Orlando.

Leeper said he didn't know how many people were seriously hurt. At least one person was in critical condition with potentially life-threatening injuries, while nine others were in serious condition, hospital officials said.

James Pierce had just settled into his sleeper car for a 16 1/2-hour train trip to Washington when the train screeched off the rails and slammed into pine trees lining the tracks.

"It felt like it was sliding to the left and suddenly it just toppled," said Pierce, an Amtrak attendant from Huntingtown, Maryland.

Pierce said he grabbed the sleeper car's curtains when the train left the track, and within seconds he found himself hanging in the air. After the train came to a stop, Pierce said he removed the emergency window and began pulling people out of the cabin.

Rescue officials, using ladders to reach the overturned cars, helped survivors out of the train and reached through the windows to get to those still trapped inside.

The derailment was the first Auto Train accident since 1998, when a train hit an empty car on tracks at a crossing in the southern Virginia town of Jarratt. The front wheels of the lead engine derailed, but it remained upright. There were no injuries.

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