Investigators On Scene Of Mississippi Train Derailment

Federal and state investigators Wednesday examined twisted rails and overturned Amtrak passenger cars in a swampy area of central Mississippi, looking for a reason the City of New Orleans train spilled down an embankment, killing one person and injuring nearly 60 others.

Most of the injured, a few seriously hurt, were treated at Jackson area hospitals and released following the Tuesday night derailment.

As the walls of the passenger cars rattled and the wheels screeched, 71-year-old registered nurse Iris Giorgi of Glendora, Calif., recalled a conductor saying: "This is the worst part of the track,'' before the northbound train derailed shortly after 6:30 p.m.

Minutes later, the nurse was tending the wounded, many trapped in the nine passenger cars that topped off elevated tracks and fell several feet before ending up on their sides. The engine remained upright.

Four freight trains have crashed along that five-mile stretch near the town of Flora since 1994. Four thousand Flora-area residents were evacuated when train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in 1997.

"We want to know whether a 'slow order' was issued for that area of track,'' Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel said Wednesday.

Federal inspectors walk the nation's railroad tracks periodically to spot problems.

"If they spot an area that cannot safely sustain a train at the posted speed limit, they can issue a slow order for the track,'' Stessel said. "Engineers know that the slow order supersedes Amtrak's timetable.''

The engineer would have been told of a slow order before departing New Orleans.

"The slow order functions as a temporary speed restriction until a repair can be made if it's needed,'' Stessel said. "The company that owns the track would get the slow order from the federal inspectors. It's a fairly common practice in the railroad industry.''

On Wednesday, crews could be seen inspecting tracks and switches leading up to the accident site. There was no immediate word on what they were looking for.

The National Transportation Safety Board scheduled an afternoon news conference to discuss the investigation.

Amtrak passengers rode that line for 26 years in the train made famous by Arlo Guthrie's song. But the rail lines are owned by a Canadian company called CN. The rail is one of CN's main lines.

In 2002, freight trains carried 39 million gross tons along the CN line.

CN president Ian Thomson said Wednesday that the track's posted speed limit is 79 mph for passenger trains and 60 mph for the trestle where cars derailed. He said he was unaware of any slow order for the area.

NTSB dispatched a 12-member investigation team to examine the track, collect statements and retrieve metal shards, train equipment and wreckage to test in the Washington, D.C., lab. They will also collect blood and urine samples from the engineer and crew to test for blood and alcohol.

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said it would take about two weeks to finish the toxicology report.

"It will probably take up to 18 months to complete the full investigation,'' Holloway said.

Clara Downs, 68, of Chicago, died at the crash scene. Her husband, a retired steel mill worker, said the couple had been married for almost 50 years. They were childhood sweethearts.

Downs, a native of McComb, had attended a funeral for the wife her brother. She was returning to Chicago.

Clara Downs disliked flying; trains were her favorite way to travel, her son said.

"Ever since we were kids we used to go down South, and she always enjoyed riding the train. That basically stuck with her,'' said Willie Downs Jr. Passenger Mary Turnage, 72, recalled the "horrible sounds'' when the New Orleans train derailed.

"I heard the engineer blowing the horn, then we started jerking around. I heard horrible sounds and then I was looking at the stars and the leaves on the trees,'' she said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)