On September 22, 1993, the Sunset Limited, the pride of Amtrak, glided swiftly along through the warm, fall night. A dense fog hugged the country- side. Because there was nothing to see through the train’s windows, many passengers dozed peacefully, lulled to sleep by the gentle, rhythmic, clickety-clack of iron wheels passing over jointed rails. Crewmem- bers roamed the aisles and halls making sure that those guests still awake were accommodated and comfortable. In less than a second, this peaceful scene was shattered by a thundering roar as seats were torn from the floor and passengers were sent flying through the cars. At 2:53 a.m. Amtrak’s only transcontinental passenger train, the Sunset Limited, plunged into Big Bayou Canot, killing 47 passen- gers. Eight minutes earlier at 2:45 a.m., a towboat, pushing six barges and lost in a dense fog, unknow- ingly bumped into the Big Bayou Canot Bridge knocking the track out of alignment. The train, trav- eling at a speed of 72 mph in the dense fog, derailed as a result, burying the engine and four cars five sto- ries deep in the mud and muck of Big Bayou Canot.4,7,8,10,12,13
Bruce Barrett, a locomotive engineer, has described what might have been occurring in the cab of Amtrak engine Number 819 prior to the wreck.2
This scenario is based upon my 17 years’ experi- ence as a locomotive engineer on a major western railroad and upon the compilation of bits and pieces of data from public records and accounts of the accident.
Engineer Michael Vincent was at the controls of the two-week-old General Electric “AMD-
103” locomotive. Engineer Billy Rex Hall was in the cab with Vincent along with Ernest Lamar Russ who was qualifying as an AMTRAK engi- neer on this portion of the run.
I can almost see the instrument lights as they cast a soft, orange glow across the cab of the loco- motive, highlighted by the light from the train’s headlight bouncing off the impenetrable fog. I can hear the three men calling out the colors of the railroad signals (sort of like traffic lights for automobiles) as they came into view and dis- cussing the restrictions that would affect the train over the next few miles. The new locomotive, shaped like a bullet, would have been the topic of conversation. Engineers enjoy comparing the “old days” with the new technology as it responds to the movement of their hands on the controls as the train clipped along at 103.53 feet per second. While the headlight beam may have reached 1,000 feet in clear weather, given the dense fog, the visibility would more likely have been less than 100 feet. As the Bayou Canot Bridge appeared in the fog, they would have had no hint of what lay ahead. Even if the headlight had detected the slight shift of the tracks to the left, there would have been less than a second for Vin- cent to react. I can see his hand as he reached too late for the emergency brake as the 150-ton loco- motive turned into an uncontrollable beast and lurched to the left, starting a dive that would bury the locomotive 46 feet—equivalent to five stories—into the muddy bank of the bayou.
I can sense the bridge collapsing under me and momentarily hear the locomotives and lead cars dropping into the water and debris below. I can feel the locomotive’s windshield glass against
The Wreck of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited H. Richard Eisenbeis, Sue Hanks, and Bruce Barrett
University of Southern Colorado
Copyright © 1999 by the Case Research Journal, H. Richard Eisenbeis, Sue Hanks, and Bruce Barrett. All rights reserved.
my face and hands as it shatters inward. I can see myself recoiling in terror as water and mud extrude into the cab, helplessly entombing me and my two companions in our muddy coffin.
At 2:33 a.m., twenty minutes earlier, Amtrak’s only transcontinental passenger train, had eased out of the Mobile, Alabama station to continue its streak eastward, thirty-three minutes behind schedule— scheduled departure was 2:00 a.m. (Exhibit 1). It had been delayed in New Orleans for repairs to an air conditioner and toilets on two cars. The train, as it left the Mobile station, consisted of three locomo- tives and eight cars and carried 202 passengers with a crew of 18. By the time the train was ten miles out of Mobile, it had reached a speed of 72 mph (autho- rized speed was 70 mph). The green signals indicated that the train was free to “proceed” at maximum track speed in spite of the dense fog, which reduced visibility to a few yards. At Mile Post 656.7 on the Chesapeake and Ohio (CSX) main track, the Sunset Limited approached a wood-and-steel bridge span- ning a navigable estuary called “Big Bayou Canot.” Although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had recommended that all railroad bridges over navigable bodies of water be equipped with sen- sors to detect bridge damage, the Big Bayou Canot Bridge was not so equipped. 4,7,8,10,12,13
None of the engineers survived. The three loco- motive units came to rest on the east side of the bayou. Part of Unit 819 was buried about 46 feet in the mud, and the part protruding above the embank- ment caught fire and burned. The verified records indicate that in addition to the engines, a baggage car, a baggage-dorm, and two coaches of the eight-car train dove into the 16 feet of water below the bridge. The last four cars remained on the bridge.8
The passenger cars in the bayou immediately began to fill with water, and the diesel fuel from rup- tured locomotive fuel tanks began to burn atop the water. While some passengers were able to fight their way to the surface, others were hopelessly trapped in the wreckage. Parents lifted children to safety and, in their continuing efforts to save others, became vic- tims themselves. Others dove repeatedly into the black waters in attempts to save fellow passengers. 7,10
Darkness prevailed outside the cars after the derailment. Battery-powered emergency lighting, available inside coaches, provided some illumina- tion, but only the train crew had penlights to use while walking down the tracks in the dark. Once the
cars entered the water, the emergency lighting became inoperable, further complicating evacuation from the submerged cars. Without light from a few penlights and from the fire that ensued following the accident, no light would have been available. Because emergency lighting was unavailable in the submerged cars, passengers had difficulty locating and moving to exits.8
Since most on-board service crewmembers were asleep in the dorm coach and since the train atten- dants were in the cars on the bridge, passengers in the submerged cars had to make decisions on their own and evacuate without assistance. Fortunately, a few passengers took control of the situation, located exits, and told others what to do.13
Both the conductor and the assistant conductor were in the diner car, the next to the last car on the train. The assistant conductor reported that the acci- dent took place without warning—no setting up of the brakes, no horn blast, and no communication to the locomotive crew. He was thrown onto a table in front of him and then into the middle of the car. The conductor was thrown over him. When the train stopped, the conductor attempted to contact the engineers in the lead locomotive using his portable radio but received no reply.8
The badly shaken but otherwise uninjured assis- tant conductor instantly contacted Warren Carr (the CSX trainmaster) who was responsible for monitor- ing all traffic in this portion of the CSX system and requested immediate assistance. But, in the confu- sion and blackness he was able to give only a general location of the wreck.7
The New York Times article entitled “Report Revises Times in Train Wreck” published October 8, 1993, included the following transcripts of three calls to 911 placed by Amtrak employees immedi- ately after the accident.12
FIRST CALL: 3:01 A.M.
The first two calls came from officials of CSX Trans- portation Inc., owner of the tracks and bridge. Warren Carr, an assistant terminal trainmaster in Mobile, apparently made the first, to the Mobile police dispatcher.
Mr. Carr tells the operator a train has derailed at Bayou Sara drawbridge and that he understands people are in the water and the bridge is on fire. There are references to Prichard, a small town on the edge of Mobile and Chickasabogue, or Chickasaw
’ SUNSET LIMITED
Creek, five miles southwest of the accident site (Exhibit 2).
911: Where is this? Where is that located?
CARR: It’s off the Mobile River.
CARR: It’s north of Chickasabogue draw. You can’t . . .