An Amtrak passenger train traveling at more than 50 mph ran off a main track Sunday in Lexington County, smashed into a parked train and killed two people in what’s considered one of the worst railroad accidents in recent South Carolina history.
As many as 116 people were injured in the early morning crash that occurred in a wooded area near a collection of small neighborhoods and industrial sites west of Columbia. Investigators said the crash in the Pine Ridge-Cayce area apparently was caused by a misaligned track switch that sent the Amtrak veering off course and onto a side track.
As daylight broke, the crash scene revealed a tangle of crushed freight cars and part of the Amtrak train lying on its side. A top National Transportation Safety Board official called the wreckage “catastrophic.”
“It’s a horrible thing to see to understand the force that is involved,” Gov. Henry McMaster said. “The first engine of the freight train was torn up, and the single engine of the Amtrak train was barely recognizable. It was quite a crash.”
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President Donald Trump weighed in on the wreck Sunday, with the White House expressing “thoughts and prayers” for all affected by the accident.
The two people killed in the train wreck were identified as Amtrak employees, Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Ga., and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Fla. The company issued a statement saying it “was deeply saddened” by the day’s tragedy.
Victims injured in the 2:35 a.m. crash were transported to local hospitals for treatment, while those who weren’t hurt huddled at a local middle school. Investigators and emergency preparedness officials swarmed the accident scene early Sunday.
Sixty-two of those injured were treated in the Palmetto Health hospital system after the crash, Dr. Eric Brown said at a 1 p.m. news conference. Six people had been admitted for further treatment, including one in critical condition and two in serious condition.
The rest had been treated and released, Brown said. Most suffered minor bumps and bruises, although more serious cases included “solid organ and head injuries,” Brown said.
Brown said the biggest challenge hospital staff faced was the volume of patients coming in at the same time. He praised the work of emergency responders at the scene in performing triage before the patients arrived.
The emergency happened during a shift change at Palmetto Health Richland, so there were plenty of staff on hand to take in patients. Many on the night shift stayed on, some even into the afternoon, while those on the day shift arrived early to help.
The Amtrak train was en route between New York and Miami. The crash occurred shortly after a stop in Columbia, according to the state Office of Regulatory Staff, the state agency that oversees trains in South Carolina. It was unclear if the Amtrak train tried to apply its brakes before the crash, according to the NTSB.
“The sound was so loud, you instantly knew it was bad,” West Columbia resident Elliot Smith, 22, said, describing what he heard when the wreck occurred.
One passenger, Derek Pettaway, told CNN that officials reacted swiftly after the wreck and passengers were led off quickly.
“Nobody was panicking, people were in shock more than anything,” he said.
At an afternoon news conference Sunday, National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt expressed his condolences to the victims, vowing to fully investigate the cause of the wreck. Among other things, the agency will be looking at the possibility of human error, as well as mechanical failures. Sumwalt said it’s important to move quickly to find answers.
Sumwalt, a Columbia resident, said the accident could have been avoided if a federal safety system had been implemented. That system has been under review but has never taken effect. He said the agency also was investigating reports that signals on the rail track did not work.
The Amtrak train was traveling within the 59 mph speed limit when the crash occurred, according to preliminary information obtained by the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff. The estimated speed was “somewhere in the 50s,” the agency’s Tom Allen said. The NTSB did not confirm that Sunday afternoon.
The wreck brought back memories of a fatal 2005 railroad accident in Graniteville, a small South Carolina community. That wreck killed nine people when a speeding freight train ran off a main track and ran into a parked train car. The impact sent a cloud of toxic chlorine over Graniteville that was blamed for the deaths.
South Carolina also has had other major train wrecks since 1990. Among those was a 1991 crash in Kershaw County that killed seven passengers near the small community of Lugoff. In 2015, two CSX freight trains collided in Allendale County, causing a chemical spill. That wreck did not involve deaths, but sparked a federal investigation. In that case, foul play was suspected, said Derrec Becker, an official with the state Emergency Management Division.
Allen, who heads the state Office of Regulatory Staff’s safety division, said the collision of an Amtrak train with a freight car is unusual in South Carolina. Most Amtrak accidents occur when a passenger train runs into a vehicle or someone on the track, he said.
“For an Amtrak, this is pretty uncommon,” Allen told The State newspaper. “We have not in quite sometime dealt with either a train-on-train issue with Amtrak, or even an Amtrak derailment. Certainly, from a passenger rail perspective, it is the worst train wreck in quite some time.”
The National Transportation Safety Board was collaborating with state railroad investigators to determine the accident’s cause.
One issue under investigation is the position of a track switch. Initial reports indicated the switch was misaligned, causing the passenger train to run off the main track, Allen said. If that proves true, it would be similar to the cause of both the Graniteville and Lugoff wrecks in South Carolina.
After the Graniteville wreck, the federal government began working to implement positive train controls on many trains, including passenger lines. But implementing the system has been delayed, and Allen said positive train controls were not in place to warn the Amtrak train of problems ahead. Positive train controls act like a braking mechanism.
“A fully operational positive train control system could have avoided this accident,” Sumwalt said during a news conference Sunday. “That is what it is designed to do.”
Staff writers Maayan Schechter, Bristow Marchant and Josh Kendall contributed to this story