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Towboat Captain May Have Hit Railroad Bridge in Fog

By Don Phillips
The Washington Post

MOBILE, Ala.

The captain of a towboat pushing six barges was disoriented in dense fog and might not have realized that one of them apparently nudged a railroad bridge, perhaps causing derailment of Amtrak's Sunset Limited before dawn Wednesday, authorities reported Thursday.

A transcript of radio communications released by the Coast Guard Thursday indicated that captain Andrew Stabler of the MV Mauvilla radioed his position at Bayou Sara, south of the crash site and navigable by barges. But Stabler said he was lost and had to "go see what is going on," according to the transcript.

About that time, records showed, a CSX Transportation official phoned the Coast Guard to report the derailment at Bayou Canot, where the train bridge stands seven feet above water, too low for barge traffic.

The events disclosed Thursday left federal officials temporarily mystified about whether Stabler's report preceded or followed the crash, said John A. Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board in charge of the investigation. The time of impact has been reported variously between 2:47 a.m. and 2:58 a.m. CDT

Meanwhile, rescue teams continued to search in murky water for more victims of the worst accident in Amtrak history. Authorities said that at least 44 people were killed and that as many as nine remained missing. The train carried more than 206 passengers and crew.

Barge-mounted cranes began the delicate task of moving submerged double-decker Superliner coaches after divers reported that they could not maneuver in the tight confines of the coaches.

Thursday, a task force of federal, state and local law enforcement officials was formed to consider possible legal action in the crash, and Transportation Secretary Federico Pea ordered the Coast Guard to review rules of navigation and licensing of towboat captains in inland waterways.

The timing of events before the crash became less certain as Lt. James Hanzalik, assistant chief of port operations for the Coast Guard here, said telephone notification of the crash from CSX, which owns the Bayou Canot bridge, was logged at 3:05 a.m.

"Almost simultaneously," Hanzalik said, another Coast Guard unit received an urgent radio dispatch from the MV Mauvilla about the derailment.

CSX learned of the crash when the Sunset Limited's conductor radioed a "mayday" overheard at the CSX yard office in Mobile.

The main area of inquiry involves whether the vessel notified Coast Guard officials or other authorities of the accident promptly, as required by federal maritime law.

At 3:06 a.m., Stabler radioed the Coast Guard: "Mayday, mayday. I've lost my tow. There's too much fog. Don't know exact location. Just around 12-Mile Island, around the cut."

The Coast Guard answered: "Vessel hailing `Mayday', how many people on board, and are you in any immediate danger?"

Stabler: "Negative. Don't quite know what has happened. Just saw the heel (the far end) of my tow disappear. We're right under the bridge at 14 mile in Sara Bayou. We have four people on board. There's a lot of fog. I don't have time to talk to you. Let me go see what is going on. I'll get right back with you. Out."

Almost immediately, he radioed: "Coast Guard, this is Mauvilla. It's real bad here. There's a train that ran off the track into the water, and there's lots of people that need help. And there's a fire. I'm going to try to help some of them, and I'll get back to you."

The MV Mauvilla, owned by Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., of Mobile, was pushing six 1,500-ton barges aligned side by side in three rows. Each barge is 195 feet long and 35 feet wide, so Stabler, overseeing operations from his towboat at the rear, was about two football fields from the front of his tow.

Such heavy tows have tremendous momentum, even when traveling slowly. Joseph Farrell, president of American Waterway Operators, an industry group, said a tow must move at least 3 to 4 knots, less than 5 mph, to have steering capability. "You're talking about 9,000 tons and the weight of the towboat.... Basically, it is considerable momentum," he said.

According to a railroad industry source, one or more barges apparently nudged out of alignment the center portion of the three-section bridge. That left the single railroad track out of line and a heavy girder directly in the path of the locomotive, the source said, leading to a tremendous impact.