Fire Chief Recalls Worst Train Disaster In Amtrak History

Gulfport Fire Chief Pat Sullivan remembers the chaos when he arrived near Saraland, Alabama, in September of 1993.  He was called to assist in the worst disaster in Amtrak's history.

Sullivan said "Any type of accident like this, major accidents, there's confusion. Once you got to the scene, there were still some fires burning. The divers had started their operation of going in and getting people out that were under water"

The Amtrak Sunset Limited, heading from New Orleans to Florida, derailed over Bayou Canot. The bridge had collapsed, sending three cars and two engines into the water. 47 people died in that pre-dawn crash. Sullivan and his cavader dog Baron helped search the scene to find and recover the bodies.

Sullivan said "We checked some areas for them to make sure no one was swept out of the train. The main thing in this point was to account for all the victims".

So when Sullivan heard about Tuesday's Amtrak crash in the swamps near Flora, Mississippi, he and his new dog Sam were ready to respond.

Sullivan said "If the local resources were not enough, if the local authorities that were handling the derailment itself needed us, we would have been en route".

Sullivan and Sam didn't go this time, but, they still train every month for such emergencies. He says the Sunset Limited disaster taught him a lot of lessons.

Sullivan said "We've had experience with derailments. We understand how severe a derailment can be. There were great loss of life in the Mobile accident. We have gotten much better at command and control since '93. We've gotten better at handling emergencies".

Besides training with dogs, Chief Sullivan says he sends crews to a special Amtrak school to learn things like how to remove people from derailed trains, the hazards on board, and emergency shut-offs and exits.

By: Trang Pham-Bui