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Train crash killing two in South Carolina 'could have been prevented'

Two Amtrak crew members were killed, and more than 100 people were injured.

AN AMTRAK PASSENGER train slammed into a parked freight train in the early-morning darkness yesterday in South Carolina 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 95km/h when it struck the empty CSX train around 2.45am, Governor Henry McMaster said.

The crash happened near a switchyard about 16 kilometres south of Columbia where rail cars 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 heard screams and crying all around him as he tried to get out. Other passengers were bleeding.

‘It could have prevented the accident’

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.

Train Crash South Carolina Emergency responders work at the scene of the crash Source: Lexington County Sheriff's Department via AP

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 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 hospitalised in critical or serious condition, with nearly all the rest treated for minor injuries such as cuts, bruises and whiplash, authorities said.

Investigators recovered a camera from the front of the Amtrak train and were looking for the data recorders from the two trains.

The switch that triggered the crash was found padlocked in position, which conductors are supposed to do when they move a train from one line to another, Sumwalt said.

Deaths

The dead were identified as engineer Michael Kempf, aged 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, aged 36, of Orange Park, Florida.

“Any time you have anything that happens like that, you expect more fatalities. But God blessed us, and we only had the two,” Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher said, her voice choked with emotion.

On Wednesday, a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat slammed into a garbage truck in rural Virginia, killing one person in the truck and injuring six others.

And on 18 December, an Amtrak train ran off the rails along a curve during its inaugural run near Tacoma, Washington, killing three people and injuring dozens. It was going nearly 120km/h, more than twice the speed limit.

Read: At least 3 killed and 10 seriously injured after train derails near Milan

More: Delays of up to 120 minutes on rail services after tragic incident, mechanical fault and trespassers

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Associated Press

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