An Amtrak train appears to have been running on the wrong track when it collided with a CSX freight train in South Carolina early Sunday morning, killing two Amtrak crew members and leaving more than 100 others injured, officials said.
The train carrying around 147 people was running along CSX-owned and -operated tracks from New York to Miami when a switch on the rails caused it to turn onto a parallel track where the unoccupied freight train was parked, Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a press conference.
It’s not yet known why that switch ― which had been padlocked to keep it in place, as part of protocol ― had been left in that position, Sumwalt said.
“Our goal is to find out not only what happened but why it happened so that we can prevent it from happening again,” he said.
As part of the NTSB’s investigation, Sumwalt said the board will be interviewing Amtrak and CSX workers, as well as reviewing video recovered from the Amtrak train that recorded its outward-facing path. The investigating agency also hopes to review data recorders belonging to both trains, which have not yet been recovered. The operators’ cellphone records and drug tests will also be examined.
Killed on the Amtrak train were engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 34, of Orange Park, Florida, the Lexington County Coroner’s Office said at an afternoon press conference. Both were in the front of the locomotive, which Sumwalt described as “not recognizable at all” following the high-speed crash.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R), at an earlier press conference, said 116 people were sent to local hospitals after the Amtrak train slammed into the freight train after appearing to have ended up “on the wrong track” around 2:30 a.m.
“The CSX was on the track it was supposed to be on,” he said.
“It’s a horrible thing to see, to understand what force was involved,” McMaster said. “The first engine of the freight train was torn up, and the single engine of the passenger train is barely recognizable.”
Of the more than 100 people injured, officials at local Palmetto Health hospitals said they received 62 patients, who were transported there by county buses and ambulances. Three of the patients were children.
The most significant injuries include broken bones and injuries to the head and organs. Most patients suffered minor bumps, bruises and lacerations, Dr. Eric Brown, physician executive at Palmetto Health Richland, which is a level I trauma center, said at an afternoon press conference.
As of Sunday afternoon, six people remain hospitalized at Palmetto Health facilities, he said. WISTV reported that at least two patients are continuing to receive treatment at another area hospital.
In a statement, Amtrak said eight crew members and about 139 customers were aboard the passenger vehicle when it collided with the freight train at around 2:35 a.m. in Cayce, a community about four miles south of the South Carolina capital of Columbia.
The company noted CSX’s ownership and maintenance of the tracks where the collision took place.
“CSX controls the dispatching of all trains, including directing the signal systems which control the access to sidings and yards,” it said.
Amtrak said that it is cooperating fully with the NTSB.
A CSX spokesperson, in a statement to HuffPost, expressed their condolences to the victims and their families and said that they “remain focused on providing assistance and support to those impacted by today’s incident.”
“CSX hosts more passenger trains on its network than any other major railroad in the United States, and passenger rail remains one of the safest ways to travel. The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into this incident and CSX will continue working with the investigating team,” the company said.
Amtrak passengers recalled being violently thrown about the train during impact.
Matthew Cheeseman told Columbia station WIS-TV that he was traveling with his wife and 9-year-old daughter from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, when they were thrown from their seats.
“That thing threw us across the room like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got rug burn on my back, it was that bad,” he said.
That thing threw us across the room like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got rug burn on my back, it was that bad."
Fellow passenger Derek Pettaway, who was also heading to Orlando, told CNN that he was asleep at the time of the impact and was briefly hospitalized for minor whiplash. He said it didn’t take long for responding officials to evacuate the train.
“Nobody was panicking, people were in shock more than anything,” he said.
Lexington County spokesman Harrison Cahill said that about 5,000 gallons of fuel had spilled as a result of the accident. He said hazardous materials teams had secured “two leaks of fuel from the trains.” At a press conference, he stressed that there was “no threat to the public at this time.”
Amtrak has encouraged people with questions regarding passengers on the train or information about the crash to contact them at 1-800-523-9101.
Positive Train Control technology, which can stop a train if the data it collects senses that something is amiss, could have prevented this type of accident, Sumwalt said Monday. The deadline to install it on all passenger train tracks across the U.S. is the end of 2018.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R) has expressed his condolences to the crash victims on Twitter.
President Donald Trump, who is in Florida hosting a Super Bowl party at his Palm Beach golf club, was briefed on the train accident. He tweeted that his “thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims” involved in the crash.
News of the crash comes just days after a fatal accident involving an Amtrak train and a garbage truck outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
A man on the truck was pronounced dead after the train, which was carrying Republican lawmakers and their families to an annual retreat, collided with the vehicle on the tracks on Wednesday. Six other people were injured in the crash.
In December, an Amtrak train derailed near DuPont, Washington, killing 3 people and injuring dozens. According to investigators, the train had been traveling at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone when the derailment occurred.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.