Freight train vs. Amtrak crash kills 2 and hurts 116

Amtrak may have been on wrong track, but it says freight line controls signals

Posted: Feb 4, 2018 1:22 PM
Updated: Feb 4, 2018 1:27 PM

(ABC News) A Miami-bound Amtrak train appeared to be on the wrong track when it collided with a freight train in South Carolina early Sunday morning, killing two people and injuring 116, authorities said, but officials with the passenger railroad said the freight line controls signalling and dispatch on the tracks.

The two people who died were the train conductor and engineer, the county coroner said.


Authorities investigate the scene of a fatal Amtrak train crash in Cayce, S.C., Feb. 4, 2018.

Authorities investigate the scene of a fatal Amtrak train crash in Cayce, S.C., Feb. 4, 2018.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at a news conference that a CSX freight train appeared to be on a loading track when the Amtrak train with 147 people aboard slammed into it at 2:35 a.m. in Cayce, South Carolina, just east of Columbia.

"It appears that the Amtrak was on the wrong track," McMaster said at the news conference midday Sunday. "They weren't supposed to be meeting right there by the bridge, clearly. And it may be a time factor, but that's what it appears to me. But I defer to those who are experts in that and do have the correct information, but it appears that Amtrak was on the wrong track."

Amtrak officials said in a statement that they are "deeply saddened" by the deaths of its employees and that the agency is cooperating fully with the National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation of the crash.

Asked about the governor's statement that Amtrak appeared to be on the wrong track, the passenger railroad said in its statement, "CSX owns and controls the Columbia Subdivision where the accident occurred. CSX maintains all of the tracks and signal systems.

CSX controls the dispatching of all trains, including directing the signal systems which control the access to sidings and yards."

The crash came just five days after an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress collided with a garbage truck in western Virginia, killing one passenger and injuring several others. Today's wreck was the third fatal Amtrak incident since mid-December.

The two Amtrak employees killed Sunday are 54-year-old Michael Kempf, the train engineer, and 36-year-old Michael Cella, the train conductor, said Margaret Fisher, coroner for Lexington County, South Carolina. Kempf was from Savannah, George, and Cella from Orange Park, Florida, Fisher said.

Both men were in the first car, the engine car, when the collision occurred, the coroner said. She said she spoke on the phone to the wives of both men. "They were very distraught, very shocked, as anyone would be in this situation," the coroner, Fisher, said.

Fisher added that given the size of the trains involved and how many people were aboard the Amtrak, "You would have expected more fatalities."

The more than 100 people injured suffered everything from minor cuts to broken bones, McMaster said.

A passenger told ABC News that he and his wife were in a sleeper car near the back of the train when the crash occurred.

"There was a lot of violent shaking and everything just came to a stop, and I hit my head on the wall," said Derek Pettaway, 33, of the Philadelphia area, who was traveling with his wife, Erin, 32, to Orlando for vacation. "When it was happening, it was quick. You just knew it was not the regular type of movement."

"The cafe car, which was located just in front of our car, was completely folded in half," he said.

Amtrak staff quickly got people off the train, Pettaway said. He said he was taken to a hospital and treated for a bump on his head and whiplash and that his wife was not injured. After he was released from the hospital, he reunited with his wife at a makeshift shelter at a school near where the train crash occurred.

As Amtrak's initial statement on the collision said, "Amtrak Train 91, operating between New York and Miami, came in contact with a CSX freight train at around 2:35 am in Cayce, South Carolina."

The statement continued, "The lead engine derailed, as well as some passenger cars. There were 8 crew members and approximately 139 passengers, with injuries reported. Local authorities are on the scene responding. More information will be provided as available."

CSX said in a statement, "This morning at approximately 2:30 a.m., an incident involving a CSX train and an Amtrak train occurred in Cayce, SC near Dixiana Road and S.R. 26. Reports of injuries have been confirmed. An emergency response plan has been activated to provide full support. Lexington County authorities have been notified and are responding to the incident. Additional information will be made available as details of the incident are confirmed."

A spokesperson for Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, South Carolina, told ABC News that it received 25 patients with minor injuries. The spokesperson added that Palmetto Health Center also received patients, but the number of patients and the injuries sustained is unclear.

Gov. McMasters said there was a rapid response from numerous emergency crews. He said the National Transportation Safety Board was sending a crew to investigate, and that South Carolina State Police and the FBI were assisting in the investigation.


"I know it's a Sunday morning and a lot of folks are going to church. I'd would asked that they say a prayer for these people," McMaster said.

The NTSB will investigate the incident. The NTSB go team will consist of more than a dozen investigators and support staff. Chairman of the NTSB board Robert Sumwalt will be the board member for the Go Team, an NTSB spokesperson told ABC News.

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