The Week Of Amtrack Sunset Limited

On September 22, 1993, the Sunset Limited, the
pride of Amtrak, glided swiftly along through the
warm, fall night. A dense fog hugged the countryside. Because there was nothing to see through the
trains windows, many passengers dozed peacefully,
lulled to sleep by the gentle, rhythmic, clickety-clack
of iron wheels passing over jointed rails. Crewmembers 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. Amtraks only
transcontinental passenger train, the Sunset Limited,
plunged into Big Bayou Canot, killing 47 passengers. Eight minutes earlier at 2:45 a.m., a towboat,
pushing six barges and lost in a dense fog, unknowingly bumped into the Big Bayou Canot Bridge
knocking the track out of alignment. The train, traveling at a speed of 72 mph in the dense fog, derailed
as a result, burying the engine and four cars five stories deep in the mud and muck of Big Bayou
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 experience 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 AMD103 locomotive. Engineer Billy Rex Hall was in
the cab with Vincent along with Ernest Lamar
Russ who was qualifying as an AMTRAK engineer 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 locomotive, highlighted by the light from the trains
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 discussing 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 Vincent to react. I can see his hand as he reached too
late for the emergency brake as the 150-ton locomotive turned into an uncontrollable beast and
lurched to the left, starting a dive that would
bury the locomotive 46 feetequivalent to five
storiesinto 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 locomotives windshield glass against
The Wreck of Amtraks 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, Amtraks
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 locomotives 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 (authorized 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 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 sensors 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 locomotive 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 embankment 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 ruptured 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 victims 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 illumination, 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 were
asleep in the dorm coach and since the train attendants 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 accident took place without warningno 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 assistant conductor instantly contacted Warren Carr (the
CSX trainmaster) who was responsible for monitoring all traffic in this portion of the CSX system and
requested immediate assistance. But, in the confusion 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 immediately after the accident.12
The first two calls came from officials of CSX Transportation 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

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