CAYCE, S.C. - An Amtrak passenger train slammed into a parked freight train in the early-morning darkness Sunday after a thrown switch sent it hurtling down a side track, authorities said. Two Amtrak crew members were killed, and more than 100 people were injured.
It was the third deadly wreck involving Amtrak in less than two months.
The Silver Star, en route from New York to Miami with nearly 150 people aboard, was going an estimated 59 mph when it struck the empty CSX train around 2:45 a.m., Gov. Henry McMaster said.
The crash happened near a switchyard about 10 miles south of Columbia where railcars hauling automobiles are loaded and unloaded.
Many of the passengers were asleep when the crash jolted them awake and forced them into the cold.
“I thought that I was dead,” said passenger Eric Larkin, of Pamlico County, North Carolina, who was dazed and limping after banging his knee.
Larkin said he was on his way to Florida when he was awoken by the crash. The train was shaking and jumping, and his seat broke loose, slamming him into the row in front of him, he said.
He said he heard screams and crying all around him as he tried to get out. Other passengers were bleeding.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators found a track switch had been set in a position that forced the Amtrak train off the main track and onto the siding.
He said the question for investigators is why that happened.
Amtrak President Richard Anderson pointed the finger at CSX, saying the signal system along that stretch is run by the freight railroad but was down at the time of the wreck, forcing CSX dispatchers to route trains manually. The NTSB said it was working to confirm that.
CSX issued a statement expressing condolences but said nothing about the cause of the accident.
Sumwalt said that positive train control - a GPS-based safety system that can automatically slow or stop trains - could have prevented the accident.
“That’s what it’s designed to do,” he said, referring to technology that regulators have been pressing for for decades with mixed success.
The conductor and engineer aboard the Amtrak locomotive were killed, and 116 people were taken to four hospitals, according to the governor.
At least three patients were in critical or serious condition, with nearly all the rest treated for minor injuries such as cuts, bruises and whiplash, authorities said.
Palmetto Health emergency room doctor Eric Brown said so many passengers were hurt that they were brought in on two buses, and a tent that had been set up as a waiting room to keep people separate from flu patients was turned into a triage area.
The locomotives of both trains were left crumpled, the Amtrak engine on its side. One car in the middle of the Amtrak train was snapped in half, forming a V off to one side of the tracks.