Sunday, October 22, 2006

Data recorders removed after fiery train crash

NEW BRIGHTON, Pennsylvania (AP) -- Federal investigators removed data recorders from a train that derailed and burst into flames over a bridge in southwestern Pennsylvania as ethanol tanker cars continued to burn.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board on Saturday also removed a section of track that was broken in two when 23 cars from the train's midsection derailed late Friday. No one was injured.

Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman of the safety board, said preliminary indications from the data recorders from three locomotives showed that the train was traveling 36 to 39 mph when it crashed. The speed limit is 45 mph along the rail bridge.

NTSB officials said they would gather maintenance records and interview witnesses, including crew members of the Norfolk Southern train.

The train -- 89 tanker cars pulled by three locomotives -- was traveling from Chicago to New Jersey when it derailed over the Beaver River in New Brighton, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

At least nine of the cars leaked ethanol, also known as grain alcohol, and caught fire, and some were still burning Saturday night. Officials couldn't immediately give a count.

Ten safety board members will investigate mechanical issues, human factors, track and engineering issues, and the emergency response to the crash, Sumwalt said. Officials expected to interview the train's two-man crew, its engineer and a conductor on Sunday.

"At this time, our investigation is just beginning," Sumwalt said. "We want to collect information before we start making analytical statements."

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection, Norfolk Southern and Beaver County were determining whether to let the fire burn itself out or extinguish it, Sumwalt said.

About 50 people who live nearby spent Friday night in a makeshift shelter at a local school because of concerns of possible explosions. It was not clear when they would be able to return home.

State officials were monitoring the water and air quality, Sumwalt said. Downstream water users were notified of the incident as a precaution, DEP spokeswoman Betsy Mallison said.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband would not comment on the condition of the half-mile long bridge before the accident, but said company officials inspect mainline tracks like the ones on the bridge at least twice a week.

The railroad's engineers will examine the bridge for structural soundness, but Sumwalt said they can't do that until the burning cars are removed.

About 50 to 70 trains use the tracks daily. "We're working on a plan to detour as many of those trains as we can," Husband said.

The derailment was affecting Amtrak's Capitol Limited, which makes one round trip daily between Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Until that section of track reopens, each one-way trip will take about 21/2 hours longer because the train is being detoured onto some short line tracks between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said.