tampabay.com

Crime on the rails?

The FBI says a piece of equipment intentionally put on the track likely caused the derailment.

By AMBER MOBLEY
Published August 1, 2006


TAMPA - The FBI says a piece of equipment intentionally placed on railroad tracks likely caused Sunday's freight train derailment on Busch Boulevard.

The agency is conducting a criminal investigation into the incident involving a CSX train that landed yards from an office building and closed a portion of Busch for a day and a half.

FBI officials learned Sunday night that the part, called a knuckle, had been left on the track, said spokeswoman Carol Michalik.

A knuckle is a heavy, metal component of the railroad couplers that hold freight cars together. The knuckle helps one part of the coupler grip the other.

Matt VanHattem, a senior editor at the Wisconsin-based Trains Magazine, said the pieces sometimes fall off trains by accident.

"Often, the knuckle will break off or snap sometimes if there's a jarring motion. That's what they call a broken knuckle," said VanHattem.

However, CSX and the FBI think the placement of the part on the tracks was no accident.

"That's obviously not only putting our crews' lives at risk but also interfering with interstate commerce," said CSX spokesman Gary Sease.

The FBI has taken the lead role in the investigation. Federal officials do not suspect terrorism, Michalik said.

The train's engineer told Hillsborough County Fire Rescue officials that he felt a shimmy after he passed Himes Avenue.

"And the next thing he knew, he said he felt like he was on the ride of his life," said Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley.

The train's lead engine flipped onto its side Sunday about 6:30 p.m., leaking 200 gallons of diesel fuel, officials said.

No one was hurt, including the conductor, engineer and brakeman, all of whom were on board.

Ernest Rickenbacker saw the engine "just hit the ground" as he drove along Busch Boulevard on his way to a restaurant. He marveled at the flying metal but was also moved by the compassion of the passers-by who stopped.

"At least 40 people ran up to it to help whoever was inside," Rickenbacker said. "It really showed that people still care."

While none of the train's cars ended up on the roadway, the equipment CSX used to pick up the overturned engine blocked Busch Boulevard on Sunday night and all day Monday, causing traffic to back up along side streets.

The 1.3-mile stretch of Busch between Armenia Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway should be open in time today for the morning rush hour, said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman J.D. Callaway.

The fuel did not ignite, but 11 Hillsborough County Fire Rescue units and about 30 firefighters responded in case of injuries and to protect nearby Buschwood office park buildings from any fire threat.

Jason Dawkins had a front row seat to the derailment's aftermath Monday morning from his first floor office at Richmond American Homes, 3550 Buschwood Park Drive. "Thank God it wasn't more serious," he said. Dawkins and coworkers stared through windows, waiting to see how workers would use a huge crane.

Coworker Kristy Helzer was dismayed at how close the train came to hitting the building. "If it went just a few more feet, who knows what could've happened."

CSX planned to work until at least midnight Monday resetting the bent train tracks and towing away the engine and freight cars.

CSX, with more than 21,000 miles of train track in 23 states, had officials on scene in less than 30 minutes Sunday, said Yeakley.

Sease said the local freight train was going between an automobile distribution center and freight classification yard when it derailed.

"We do all we can to make it as secure as possible," Sease said. "At the same time it is an environment where there is a certain amount of an open space."

The FBI asks that anyone who saw anything suspicious near the tracks call the agency at 813 253-1000.

Amber Mobley can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or amobley@sptimes.com.