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    Amtrak wreck still a mystery

    Officials are still searching for the cause of an Auto Train derailment that killed four.

    ©Associated Press
    April 18, 2003


    The sight horrified Auto Train engineer Earl Karper Sr. -- the tracks just ahead of his speeding locomotive were misaligned. He grabbed for the brakes, but it was too late -- many of the cars shot off the tracks.

    Passengers, employees, tables, chairs, luggage and walls flew, fell and tumbled. The interlocked silver cars knocked down pine trees and slid through the rocks along the tracks. Fourteen of the 16 passenger cars derailed, several turning on their sides.

    Four passengers died and 106 people were injured in the Amtrak derailment, one year ago today near the rural Central Florida town of Crescent City. National Transportation Safety Board investigators still aren't sure what caused the tracks' misalignment or even if that was the accident's cause.

    Karper told investigators the problem was the tracks; he estimated they were 10 inches out of alignment.

    "At the very last moment, I saw what is referred to as a dog leg," he said, according to government reports, which included dozens of interviews with the crew, passengers and rescuers. "I saw it right as it came past us. . . . Being on a curve like that, you couldn't tell the deformity until it was right there."

    The first hour of the Auto Train's journey from the Orlando suburb of Sanford to Lorton, Va., was routine.

    The 433 passengers, many heading back home after a winter in Florida, settled into their seats and berths. Some filed into the dining car. Crew members guided the train northward and attended to passengers' needs. The passengers' automobiles were stored in 23 specially designed cars.

    About 60 miles from Sanford, Karper steered onto a side track to let a coal train pass. Soon, he had a green light and the Auto Train and its hundreds of tons of cargo and people began picking up speed.

    Karper watched the tracks ahead as the train, stretching about three-quarters of mile, got up to 56 mph and went into a curve. Assistant engineer Jim Simmons sat next to him, reading some orders. Suddenly, the train hit the misaligned track.

    "What the hell was that?" Simmons yelled. He looked in a mirror and saw "the train falling apart."

    "Shoot the brakes, dump them!"' Simmons yelled to Karper, who tried.

    "I started to react and bring my hand up, we hit the defect, it had thrown me against the right-hand wall, bumped my head on the window or something over on that side," he told investigators. "Then, as I got back, I pulled the (brake) handle forward into emergency."

    Two cars behind the engine, conductor Charles Russ felt a "severe jolt in the train and I knew something was wrong. . . . We were derailing."

    As the train crashed, some on board yelled, but when it finally stopped there was a quiet calm while dazed passengers assessed the damage.

    The four people killed were all aboard the same sleeper car. Frank Alfredo, 67, of Waccabuc, N.Y., died from multiple trauma. Joan DiStephano, 65, of Staten Island, N.Y., died when she was thrown from the train. Also killed were Joseph Wright, 75, and his wife, Majorie Wright, 70, from Toronto.

    Investigators from the start have focused on Karper's report that he put the train into an emergency stop when he noticed the tracks out of alignment.

    But if the ultimate cause was misaligned tracks, no one has determined why. Investigators have suggested several explanations, from expansion of the rails by the sun's heat to ballast problems on the curve, to damage from the coal train that passed minutes before the crash.

    It may be several more months before a ruling is issued, said Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman.

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