'Everyone went flying and screaming'

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on April 18, 2003.

The engineer glanced down at the speedometer. Fifty-six miles per hour.

His eyes flicked up, looking out the window, watching the train tracks stretching out before him.


The engineer -- Earl Karper Sr. -- glanced down again. The speedometer flipped from 56 to 57, then back to 56.


His eyes returned to the window.

There was a problem.

Fifty feet away, the track was broken. Fifty feet away, the track had shifted about 10 inches to the right. Fifty feet away, there was gravel where there should have been rails.

At the speed the train was going, 50 feet of track fly by in six-tenths of a second.

Six-tenths of a second.

Long enough for Karper to put his hand on the brake. Long enough for the assistant engineer to reach for the emergency button. Long enough for Lewis Hess, bartending in a lounge car in the middle of the train, to begin to pour a beer for a passenger. And long enough for Harry Gissendanner, in the kitchen seven cars away, to start putting dinner on plates.

But not long enough to sound an alarm or make an announcement to prepare passengers for what was to come.

To understand what happens when a train leaves the tracks, you have to understand what's keeping it there normally. It all comes down to a ring of metal not much wider than a dime.

Each car on the Amtrak train that crashed near Crescent City one year ago today was traveling on eight wheels. The wheels -- huge circles 3 feet or more in diameter -- come to an inclined edge, with only the center part of the incline resting on the curved top of the track. Extending from the side of the wheels are strips of metal known as flanges, each about 5 inches long, designed as a last-resort safety measure to keep the train and the tracks together.

But what actually keeps the wheels in place is simply the weight of the train -- in this case, more than 6.4 million pounds of automobiles, passengers and crew members -- bearing down on the middle of the wheel, a point of contact about the size of dime.

When that little piece of wheel loses contact with the rail, the train no longer has any guidance.

When the locomotives, the lead cars on the train, went off the tracks near Crescent City at 5:08 p.m. on April 18, 2002, they plowed into the ballast, the gravel supporting the railroad ties. The torque rippled down the line.

Once the first car slid sideways, it began warping the railroad tracks, as well as forcing sideways pressure on the car behind it, creating a chain reaction of falling cars.

"I watched the lounge car flip over and then my car flipped over," said Joseph Smith, an Amtrak worker in the dining car. "Everyone went flying and screaming."

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The Auto Train left Sanford at 4:08 p.m., heading north to Lorton, Va., with a four-person operating crew handling the two locomotives at the front of the train. Behind them, 414 passengers took up space in 16 passenger cars, while the passengers' automobiles brought up the rear, rattling down the track on 24 freight cars. Total weight: 3,181 tons, plus the locomotives.

The train had to stop for seven minutes near Seville to wait for a coal train to clear the tracks. It pulled out at 5 p.m. and began accelerating, its speed limited to 60 mph because of severe curves in that section of the track, known as Silver Lake Curve. Still accelerating, only 3.4 miles past the Seville stop, the train plowed off the tracks.

"I was tossed around several times as it rocked violently," said a passenger in car 5212. "I hit [my] head on the seat, then the left side as it derailed. A man lay across my legs, bleeding. I couldn't move and was in terrible pain."

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Fewer than three-quarters of the passengers were in their rooms when the train began derailing, according to those who answered surveys for Amtrak. Most of the rest were in the lounge or dining cars, located at the middle and end of the passenger section.

"I was sitting in the lounge, having a glass of beer, talking to [Lewis Hess], the bartender," said a passenger sitting in a lounge 17 cars from the front of the train. "Suddenly the train bucked as if someone stepped on the brake. I asked Lou if it was normal. He looked at me and began to say it was not, when suddenly it bucked again and I was bouncing inside the car."

Hess was distracted from replying by "the sound of wood cracking."

"The train lurched first to the left, then to the right, and up in the air," Hess said. "I was thrown from one side of the car to the other. I was knocked out, and when I came to, the two other attendants had got the passengers out."

Not all passengers could evacuate that easily.

One passenger, sitting in his compartment with his wife, was thrown into the hallway, hitting the other side of the train with his back. "I felt immediate pain and had difficulty breathing," he said. "I could not get up at all."

Two men searching the car came upon the passenger and then his wife, who was trapped in the compartment. The men helped the couple navigate their way down a stairwell to the outside.

"I slipped and fell into the stairwell, crashing the back of my head against one of the stair treads. I think I went out and remember a very bright light," the passenger said. "I felt my head and knew I was bleeding badly. To this day, I have no idea how I exited the car."

A passenger a few cars away, in car 5241, was recovering from open heart surgery. When the car derailed, she was flung from the sofabed into the sink cabinet, ending up on the side -- now the floor -- of the car. "I was completely traumatized -- screaming, certain that this was the end," she said.

Because of her injuries and the problems related to surgery, the woman was unable to climb a ladder lowered down through the window on what was now the top of the car. A passenger climbed down and helped her out.

In the kitchen, nine cars from the front of the train, the staff had problems. Harry Gissendanner was standing by the steam table, preparing to ladle vegetables, rice and gravy out of dishes resting in 200-degree water.

"All the water from the steam table fell on top of him," investigator Joseph Kris reported after interviewing Gissendanner. "His injuries consisted of second- and third-degree burns from the waist down. His elbow is burned, his chest is burned and his face is burned."

The chef was the most seriously injured Amtrak employee.

Meanwhile, back at the front of the train, in the control room, the engineers were trying to make the train stop. "I told him to shoot the brakes," said Jim Simmons, the assistant engineer, referring to the air brakes. "I looked in my mirror and yelled again, shoot the brakes, dump them."

Karper, the engineer, had reached for the brake after seeing the kink in the line, but was jarred too severely to pull it until after the train had gone over the warped track. A moment after initiating the air brakes, he hit the automatic brakes to place them in emergency mode -- seconds before Simmons also hit the emergency button -- and then activated the braking device at the end of the train.

"And we went for a hell of a ride, a wild ride," Karper said.

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Altogether, 21 cars derailed, including 14 passenger cars and seven freight cars.

Four passengers died; at least 141 people were injured. Damage was estimated to be in excess of $7 million.

The investigation continues.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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