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Eight of 11 Train Crash Victims Died of Fire, Not Crash Injuries

By David Montgomery and Alice Reid
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Eight of the 11 people killed Friday in the crash of a Maryland commuter train and an Amtrak train in Silver Spring died in the resulting fire, not from the impact, raising the possibility that more could have survived if they had been able to flee the mangled commuter train, state and federal investigators said Monday.

Survivors of the fiery crash said they could not open emergency windows or doors of the Maryland Rail Commuter Service carriage and had to dive out a crack in the rended metal at the rear of the car. The first witnesses on the scene from a nearby apartment complex said passengers were pounding in vain on the shatterproof windows before the train was engulfed in flames.

"I looked up and saw a girl. She was pressed against the window, with two guys behind her," said Earren Kerns, 25, an actor living near the crash site and one of the first on the scene. He estimated that he saw them alive and trying to escape for 20 seconds before they disappeared in plumes of black smoke.

He used a heavy stick to bang on the windows. "I noticed it wasn't doing anything," he said.

Rescuers had equal difficulty getting into the train. Firefighters hauled a hose through the same hole in the rear wall that some passengers had used to escape. They found two of the dead within feet of the jammed door leading to the next car, one with "outreached hands, like he was trying to get out and was overcome," said Paul Hefferin, a Montgomery County firefighter.

"The door to the car involved would not open," Hefferin said. "We could not get that door open."

The National Transportation Safety Board is focusing part of its investigation on whether the MARC train's emergency window exits and doors worked properly, said spokesman Pat Cariseo. Investigators will seek indications that the victims were alive for a period after the crash, such as the positions of the bodies in the train and autopsy evidence of smoke in the victims' lungs, he said.

John A. Agro Jr., Maryland mass transit administrator said Monday that all exits from MARC trains meet federal standards, and all the emergency window exits have been upgraded in the last year to make them easier to open. He cautioned against drawing conclusions about the crash until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation.

"The accident was so horrific, if you have seen the vehicle itself and the manner it was torn open, you have to be careful not to conjecture," Agro said.

All of the dead on Friday were in the front car of the three-car MARC train, which rammed into the side of the lead locomotive on a Chicago-bound Amtrak train. Among the dead were three MARC crew members, including the engineer, who was in the front car controlling the train's engine, which was pushing from the rear. The eight other victims were young members of the Job Corps, traveling to Washington from Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Maryland State Medical Examiner John E. Smialek said Monday that all 11 crash victims suffered from smoke inhalation and fire, but that three victims, including two crew members, suffered "severe injuries" from the impact "that alone would have caused their deaths." He would not name the two crew members.

Another three victims, including one crew member, died from a combination of burns and smoke inhalation, Smialek said. The remaining five victims died from burns alone, he said.

Smialek also said alcohol tests were "negative on all three crew members," and test results for other drugs would be available in the next two days.

The Washington-bound MARC train failed to stop at a red signal and tore into the side of the Amtrak locomotive as the Amtrak train was changing tracks. The impact ruptured the Amtrak's exposed diesel fuel tanks, splashing MARC passengers and igniting a fire that billowed clouds of black smoke. Investigators will look into the design of the Amtrak engine, which left the tanks vulnerable to collision.

The impact obliterated at least three possible exits in the lead MARC car - the two front doors and one of four emergency window exits - and flames made escape through the resulting gash impossible. With flames quickly advancing on a spray of diesel fuel, that left as many as three emergency exit windows and the two doors in the rear, one to the outside, one to the next passenger car.

The emergency window exits were each marked with small red print on a single red handle the width of a fist. Pulling the handle is supposed to remove a rubber seal and loosen the synthetic pane.