Six critically injured in train derailment
KENSINGTON, Maryland (CNN) -- Six people suffered life-threatening injuries when an Amtrak train en route from Chicago to Washington derailed Monday just north of the nation's capital, authorities said. There were no known fatalities.
The popular Amtrak Capitol Limited train was carrying 161 passengers and 12 crew members from Chicago to Washington when it derailed around 1:55 p.m., just 10 minutes from its final destination at Union Station, authorities said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators were working the accident site about 10 miles from Washington.
Amtrak spokesman Howard Riefs said 101 people were injured, 84 of whom were treated at six area hospitals. Besides the six critically injured passengers, two dozen others suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
Among the most seriously injured was an 81-year-old woman from North Carolina who was being treated for trauma, according to hospital officials. Free-lance photographer Steve Eisen, who was on the scene, described many of the injured as "walking wounded."
Authorities said the train had 15 cars, including eight passenger cars, five baggage and mail cars, and two engines. The derailment threw six passenger cars onto their sides. One passenger car broke from the rest of the train, rolled down an embankment and slammed into trees.
One official said the train was traveling around 60 mph, below the posted speed limit of 70 mph.
Steve Colburn, who owns an area business, said he heard "a lot of loud banging" and that the derailment "sounded like a dump truck." He said one car stopped about 20 feet short of slamming into a house.
Passengers had little warning that something was wrong.
"We were in coach No. 3," recalled Craig Roberts of Wisconsin. "And all I could see is the car in front of us start going like this -- crazy -- and all of a sudden things started flying. Things were just flying all through the air."
Others didn't see anything.
"Suddenly the train started to lurch and started to fall off the track. We landed on our side," said Paula Kolokowski, who was with her 13-year-old daughter in a sleeping car near the front of the train when the accident happened.
Another passenger kicked out the window, and Kolokowski and her daughter climbed out onto the side of the train and then climbed down to the ground, she said.
"We both are shaken up, but we are doing well," Kolokowski said. "It was very frightening."
Passenger Elnora Fortson of Pittsburgh, who was traveling with her husband to visit the nation's capital, survived unscathed. "I'm blessed to be alive," she told CNN.
One of the potential causes investigators will look at is whether extreme heat caused the track to buckle. Temperatures were in the upper 90s Monday.
"We know that heat can be a factor and can cause a slight misshaping, or buckling, in the rail. This is something that does happen," said NTSB Vice Chairwoman Carol Carmody. "It is something we will be looking at as part of this investigation."
Carmody said investigators were still gathering data and it would probably be months before they determined the cause of the crash.
The tracks are owned, operated and maintained by CSX.
CSX spokesman Dan Murphy said a freight train carrying 91 tons passed over the tracks without incident shortly before the derailment. He said the track was inspected Sunday around 5 p.m. and nothing irregular was found.
Carmody said both "event recorders," similar to the flight data recorders on airliners, had been recovered from the two locomotives and downloaded.
"These [recorders] will tell us, for example, what the speed of the train was, what the engineer was doing -- was he throttling, was he braking," Carmody said.
She said the engineer submitted to a routine drug and alcohol test Monday afternoon, although the results were not immediately known. She said investigators planned to interview crew members, passengers and other witnesses, as well as closely scrutinize the accident scene.
Power lines near the tracks fell on top of some of the cars after the derailment and work crews cut power to them, said Montgomery County police spokeswoman Joyce Utter.
About 200 fire and rescue personnel responded quickly to the scene; many rescuers helped people escape through the windows of overturned cars.
By late in the day, all of the passengers had been pulled from the derailed train cars, and searchers used sniffing dogs and remote cameras to make sure no one else was trapped inside.
As each car was checked, searchers sprayed the word "clear" in bright, fluorescent orange spray paint on the side of the cars.
Buses took the uninjured passengers to Union Station late Monday.
Monday's crash occurred just a few miles from a fatal 1996 accident in which an Amtrak train slammed into a commuter train during a snowstorm near Silver Spring, Maryland, killing 11 people and injuring 26 others.
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