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Proud fathers, proud husbands: Amtrak crash victims lived for their families

An emotional Lexington County coroner IDs 2 killed in train crash

An emotional Margaret Fisher identifies the two people killed early Sunday morning when an Amtrak passenger train collided with a CSX freight train.
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An emotional Margaret Fisher identifies the two people killed early Sunday morning when an Amtrak passenger train collided with a CSX freight train.

They were husbands. They were fathers. They were both killed in South Carolina’s worst train wreck in more than a decade.

And one of them had expressed concern about the tragedy before it happened.

Michael Cella, 36, and Michael Kempf, 54, were killed early Sunday morning when an Amtrak train ran off the main track, smashing into a parked CSX freight train in Lexington County. The wreck was caused by a railroad switch locked in the wrong position, federal investigators said.

Cella, the train’s conductor, and Kempf, the engineer, were both in the first car at the time of the collision.

They were both passionate railroad men who were dedicated to their families, according to those close to them.

Cella had a personality that attracted positivity, said Michael Callanan, a rail expert and Cella’s former coworker.

“He had this smile. It didn’t matter what kind of day you were having, he could make you smile,” Callanan said. He and Cella were hired by Amtrak in 2008, went to school together and were sent to Jacksonville after training, he said.

Cella, of Orange Park, Florida, is survived by his wife, Christine, and two children. His family was his motivation, and he was working to build a better life for them, Callanan said.

When they were in school together, there was a group of people who would go out drinking and partying after class and on the weekends. But that wasn’t Cella.

“He would come out a couple times and have a beer with us or whatever. But he didn’t want any part of that nonsense,” Callanan said. “He had a girlfriend that he obviously loved ... He was career-driven, wanted a better life, and he took the training seriously.”

Cella was passionate about his job and proud of his family, he said.

“You could tell by the pictures he was posting on his Facebook (page), he was just all about his family,” Callanan said while fighting back tears over the phone. “I’m sorry. It’s just sad. He was all about his family and he was so proud to put these pictures on Facebook, and every picture he had he was smiling with his wife and his children. He was a proud father and a proud husband.”

Kempf was from Savannah, Georgia, and had worked for Amtrak for more than a decade, after previously working as a conductor for CSX and serving in the U.S. Army.

Kempf was a smart man, with a great sense of humor, who loved taking trips on his Harley Davidson, said Mike McDonald, a CSX engineer for the past 20 years. He and Kempf worked together for about five years in Jacksonville, he said.

“He enjoyed life as much as railroad men can. We’re not home a lot so we do what we can with loved ones when we are,” McDonald said. “It’s a dangerous job we have.”

And that wasn’t lost on Kempf.

Kempf had told his brother, Rich Kempf, he had seen enough accidents to make him concerned, according to WTOC. Rich Kempf also told the New York Daily News his brother had been “voicing concerns about getting killed.”

Sunday’s wreck marked the second fatal Amtrak crash in a week and the third in the last few months. Three people were killed in Washington State in December when an Amtrak train crashed there.

“Me and him always talked about this ... something happening,” Rich Kempf told the Daily News.

In a separate interview with WTOC, Rich Kempf recalled his brother wondering, “What happens to me the next time I get in a crash. Am I gonna die?”

He is survived by his wife, Diavas, and three sons. Rich Kempf said his brother was a “good guy” and a “good dad.” The two spoke on the phone daily.

“If you were broken down on the side of the road, he would stop and help you,” Rich Kempf told WTOC. “He wouldn’t just drive by and leave you hanging. I mean he would bend over backward to help anybody, you know?”

His niece, Melissa Cheesman, couldn’t agree more.

“My Uncle Mike was a wonderful man. He did everything he could … he did everything possible for his boys,” she said. “Our hearts are broken. The family is torn apart. And we’re just trying to wrap our head around how this could have happened. One minute he’s with us and joking and laughing, and in the next heartbeat we’re planning his funeral.”

Cody Dulaney: 803-771-8313, @dulaneycd

Cynthia Roldán: 803-771-8311, @CynthiaRoldan

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