CAYCE, S.C. (AP) — Passengers on a train that slammed into an empty freight train over the weekend in South Carolina, killing two Amtrak employees, described a smoky, bloody scene in 911 calls released to the news media.
“There’s babies with their heads busted wide open, bleeding,” one woman said to a dispatcher in a call released Tuesday to local news outlets. “Everybody flew to the front of the train. … Everything is everywhere.”
In another call, a man described seeing smoke inside the cars and “a lot of people hurt.” An Amtrak employee asks dispatchers to send “plenty of help” for the injured.
In interviews with The Associated Press, passengers have described seats ripped from their rows and luggage strewn about the passenger compartments after the crash early Sunday morning near Cayce (CAY-see), South Carolina. The conductor and engineer aboard the New York-to-Miami Amtrak train were killed when that craft collided with a CSX Corp. freight train parked on a side track. More than 100 passengers were treated at hospitals for injuries.
“We’re on the train, but some of us have chest pains,” another man told a dispatcher. “We need some help. … I’ve got to sit down, I can’t breathe.”
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that railway signals were out at the time of the crash while crews installed a safety system that could have prevented the exact type of wreck that killed engineer Michael Kempf and conductor Michael Cella.
Automated signals that could have warned the passenger train to stop before reaching the switch sending it down the side track were turned off as workers installed a GPS-based system called positive train control, or PTC, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
A day before, Sumwalt told reporters “an operational PTC is designed to prevent this type of incident.”
Federal investigators also said a locked manual switch forced the passenger train onto the side track where the empty freight train was parked after having offloaded its cargo nearby.
The crew that parked the CSX freight train on the side track and left the padlocked switch in position to divert trains from the main line were interviewed Monday, along with the dispatcher keeping up with trains in the area as the signals weren’t working, Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt told reporters he had not been briefed about what the CSX workers said.
The Amtrak engineer sounded his horn seven seconds before the crash and applied emergency brakes three seconds before the train collided with the other locomotive at 50 mph (80 kph), Sumwalt said, citing information from the passenger train’s data recorder.
Amtrak has dealt with a number of problems over the past two months. On Tuesday, two cars separated from the company’s Acela Express train in Maryland. No one was injured.
Less than a week ago, a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress crashed into a garbage truck at a rural Virginia crossing, killing one person in the truck, and in December, three people were killed and dozens of others were hurt when an Amtrak train derailed as it made its inaugural run along a new 15-mile (24-kilometer) bypass route in Washington state. Investigators say the train was going twice the speed limit for a curve.
Kempf, the engineer killed in the South Carolina crash, visited a counselor to help him cope after being rattled in a previous wreck less than a year before, his mother said.
Michael Kempf’s train hit a vehicle at a rail crossing in the first crash, Catherine Kempf, 86, said in a telephone interview Monday from the Savannah, Georgia, home she shared with her son and his wife.
Catherine Kempf said she didn’t remember specifics about the collision on her son’s normal route in the Carolinas, but she said the wreck left him upset because he knew “he had people’s lives in his hands,” she told The Associated Press.
Kempf and conductor Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida, were killed early Sunday in the third fatal Amtrak train crash in less than two months.
Cella’s wife, Christine, declined to talk to the AP about the man who had been her partner for about 20 years. “There’s just … it’s too much right now,” she said by phone.
Dalesio reported from Raleigh, North Carolina. Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina; Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report, along with AP video journalist Josh Replogle.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at https://apnews.com/search/meg%20kinnard .