Early indications are that what caused an Amtrak train with more than 100 passengers on board to collide with a freight train early Sunday morning in South Carolina was a “switching issue.”
While the CSX freight train was said to be on the right track, the passenger train was on the wrong one, The State reported.
The freighter was empty and on a loading track when the Amtrak train hit it at 50 mph, leading South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster to say that it appears “the CSX train was on the track it was supposed to be on” and the “Amtrak was on the wrong track.”
Office of Regulatory staff transportation safety director Tom Allen would also say that what happened “probably a switching issue.”
“Part of the preliminary indications are that it would have to be a switching issue,” he said “It was no derailment caused by a flaw in the track. The Amtrak was on the wrong track.”
Two Amtrak crew members were killed and more than 110 people were hurt as a result.
It was the third deadly wreck involving Amtrak in less than two months.
The Silver Star was en route from New York to Miami with nearly 150 people aboard around 2:45 a.m. when the crash happened.
In an emailed statement, Amtrak said that it was “deeply saddened” by the deaths and that it was cooperating fully with the NTSB. It did not address the cause of the crash but said CSX maintains all the tracks and signal systems where the accident happened and controls access to the sidings and yards.
The force of the crash dislodged a seat and knocked it onto passenger Tronia Dorsey’s legs, said her son, Andre Neblett, who spoke with her. The 43-year-old woman, who escaped with minor scratches and bruises, described a terrifying scene inside the dark compartment, with people screaming and babies wailing, he said.
“It was chaos,” Andre Neblett said after driving in from North Carolina to retrieve his mother’s suitcase from a Red Cross shelter. “She said she was just waiting on somebody to get to her.”
The conductor and engineer aboard the Amtrak locomotive were killed, the coroner’s office said. And 116 people were taken to four hospitals, according to the governor.
At least three patients were hospitalized in critical or serious condition, with nearly all the rest treated for minor injuries such as cuts, bruises and whiplash, authorities said.
At the time of impact, many passengers were sleeping and awoke to a violently shaking train.
The dead were identified as engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.