The Destruction of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited

at Bayou Canot

By Gary Farmer

Long Beach MS

 

At 2:53 a.m. on the fateful morning of September 23, 1993, the tugboat Mauvilla, lost in dense fog and desperately searching for a safe place to tie up and wait for better visibility, would cause what would turn out to be the worst train disaster in the history of Amtrak. Forty-seven people from the age of two months to 78 years of age would lose their lives, including the three engineers and two on-board attendants. For the survivors, the rest of their lives would be forever scarred by the events of that dark, foggy, morning in the bowels of an Alabama swamp.

Amtrak’s “Sunset Limited” consisting of three locomotives, one baggage car, a crew dormitory car, three passenger coaches, the combination lounge-sightseeing car, the diner, and a sleeping car, begins its cross-country journey in Los Angeles, California, and comes to rest n Jacksonville, Florida. The on-board crew, consisting of coach attendants, who attend to the passenger’s comfort much like airline attendants, cooks and waitress staff, and a “chief” who supervises these crew members, are based in Los Angeles, California. This is the reason for the crew dormitory car, which is their home away from home. The operating crew which consist of the engineers who actually “drive” the train, and the conductors who are the “boss” and responsible for the over-all operation of the train, are replaced at intervals along the route according to Federal law. No operating crewmember is allowed to be on duty for more than twelve hours even if it means stopping the train in the middle of nowhere to wait for a replacement crew. The operating crew for the Sunset limited on this fateful night was based in New Orleans, Louisiana, and relieved of duty in Pensacola, Florida. The three engineers and two coach attendants along with 42 passengers never made it. I know, because I was a member of that ill-fated crew.

Our crewmembers consisted of engineers B.R. Hall of Alabama Mike Vinet of Louisiana, and Ernie Hess of Georgia. Myself, and D.K. Thompson from Mississippi, were the two conductors. We reported for duty on the night of September21 at the usual time of 9:30 p.m. Being single, and having a desire to see the country, I had transferred all over the Amtrak system, and worked with Ernie in Atlanta, B.R. in California, and with Mike and D K. out of New Orleans. The Sunset Limited pulled into New Orleans at 10:00 p.m. ready for the usual chaos of disembarking and taking on new passengers and crew. Because of a malfunctioning air conditioning system on one of the passenger coaches, the Sunset departed New Orleans 30 minutes late, but the crew was confident of making up the time along the route. On board, the operating crew, all well qualified and good friends who were assigned to this route on a permanent basis, looked forward to another routine night of running through the piney woods and low-lying marshes that stretched from New Orleans all the way to Pensacola.

At 12:55 a.m. as Amtrak was blasting through the night, the tugboat Mauvilla was departing Mobile, Alabama pushing six barges lined up two abreast headed east on the Mobile River. On board were the Captain, a pilot (basically a relief captain), and two deckhands. Once departing Mobile, the Captain retired for the night, leaving the boat in the hands of his relief and one on-duty deckhand. Visibility was good at that time, and no problems were anticipated.

After short stops at Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula, Mississippi, the Sunset pulled into Mobile, Alabama still running late but making steady progress against the initial delays. While in Mobile, as was the usual custom, I called the engineers on the locomotives and told them to meet me at the baggage car for some coffee and doughnuts which we liberated from the dining car. As the engineers are basically sealed off from the rest of the train, this was always a welcome invitation. We departed Mobile at 2:33 a.m. Next stop Pensacola.

At 2:15a.m., Willie Odom, the pilot of the Mauvilla, radioed the Captain of a boat that was two or three miles ahead of him asking about visibility in his area. His concern was starting to mount as the fog became more and more dense. The Captain of the forward boat replied that he was “shut-in” meaning zero visibility and running on radar. Willie, inexperienced on radar, started looking for a place to tie up until the fog lifted.

Meanwhile, we had cleared downtown Mobile and the train yards to the east and were picking up speed as we passed over the bridge at the edge of the train yard. The bridge tender called "highball Amtrak” over the radio as we passed meaning that train looked o.k. to him. It is standard procedure for passing trains or employees to inspect each other on passing, looking for faulty equipment or any abnormalities. Ahead of us was about 15 miles of laser-straight track running above swamps, and crossing over numerous bridges spanning small streams and wide bayous. Track speed on this stretch was 70 miles per hour, and we were making every bit of it.

On board the Mauvilla, Willie couldn’t find a tree to tie up to.

In desperation, lost in the fog, and unsure of his surroundings, lie ordered the deckhand forward in hopes of being able to see more clearly through the fog. Just as the deckhand was going through the door, Willie saw a line on the radar screen that indicated a solid object dead ahead. The relief on the deckhands face was mirrored in Willie’s, as they both breathed a sigh of relief. Willie slowly inched his way forward through the fog heading for what he thought was a line of barges on the bank to which he could come alongside and secure his cargo of barges.

At 2:45 he hit the Bayou Canot railroad bridge.

“Hey Gary, thanks for the coffee and cake at Mobile, and clear signal at Bayou Canot,” called engineer B R. Hall. “Clear signal at Canot, and anytime on the supplies for you guys,” I replied. Those were the last words I would ever hear from my friend and engineer B.R. Hall. We had worked together in California, and used to speak “truckers talk” as we called it, just to confuse the California crewmembers who were mystified by our Southern accents. He was a great guy. As we rocketed along, I turned to D.K. Thompson, the other conductor, and commented on how smooth the night was going up to this point, and it looked liked we would be on-time into Pensacola. He agreed and went back to his paper work.

The Captain of the Mauvilla, awakened by the bump of the collision with the bridge, arrived on deck to find half of his barges floating loose in the bayou. Because of the fog, neither man on the tug boat could tell just what they’ had hit. Right now, getting the barges back together was their priority.

Seconds later, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, flying through the night at 72 miles per hour, slammed into the girder bridge that had been pushed 38 inches out of alignment and exploded. The impact destroyed the bridge. The lead locomotive, still coupled to the second locomotive, flew almost 150 feet through the air and slammed nose first into the opposite bank. The second unit, acting as a 70-ton pile driver, drove the lead unit into the mud so deep that only the last fifteen feet of the lead unit was visible. Then the second unit flipped around and exploded. The third engine, baggage car, dorm car, and two of the three passenger cars flew off the right side of what ~~as left of the bridge and crashed into the bayou. The fuel tanks on the engine exploded and fire quickly spread through the baggage and dorm cars, threatening the passenger cars that lay next to them. The second passenger car landed in the middle of the bayou and immediately started taking on water. On impact, the entire train had derailed, and only the resistance of the steel wheels chewing up the soft wooden cross ties kept the rest of the train from sliding off the remaining part of the bridge and falling on the survivors below in the water.

I had just reflected on my good fortune at being able to hold a permanent assignment with such a great crew when the world blew up in my face. It was like flying along at night and suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, hitting the side of a mountain. D.K. and I were both slammed into the booth tables where we sat with enough force to knock the tables free from the bolts that held them to the floor. As the car was rocked with three or four more quick and heavy hammer blows from the car bouncing off the side of the remaining bridge girders, I watched in astonishment as the dishes in the kitchen area in the middle of the coach actually floated in midair still neatly stacked together before flying almost thirty feet through the air and exploding against the forward wall of the diner. Suddenly all was quiet. I sprang to my feet, pulled D.K. from beneath a table he had been thrown under, found my hand-held radio, and immediately started calling the engineers. Somehow, I knew they were gone. The impact was too great. I hope to this day, that they died on impact and didn’t suffer any pain.

At 2:56a.m., one of the trains in the local area heard my frantic "mayday, mayday” calls and notified the authorities. I never knew if anyone could hear the calls because of the short range of our small radios, so D.K. and I, along with the surviving crew members set about rescuing the remaining passengers from the dark and swampy waters below us. As I regained my footing and some of my senses, my mind was flooded with questions. What in the hell had we hit? Where were we? Why won’t the engineers respond to D.K’s frantic radio calls? I knew that we were on a bridge, so I also knew that the only way to evacuate the train was through the cars to the rear. Instinctively, 1 yelled to D.K. that I was headed to the front and would send the passengers back to him. D.K. was still frantically yelling into his radio for the engineers, calling each by name and receiving only silence in reply.

 Aboard the Mauvilla at 3:05 a.m., the Captain had radioed the Coast Guard to the effect that he had lost his tow and needed assistance. At 3:07 he reported a fire and explosions on the water off in the distance. It never dawned on the crew of the Mauvilla that they had hit the railroad bridge at Bayou Canot, and that the fire and explosions were the death knells of the Sunset Limited. Only when the Coast Guard broadcast the news of the crash, and requested all vessels to render assistance, did the crew of the Mauvilla realize the enormity of their actions.

As I headed for the front of the train I grabbed a train attendant still stunned and disoriented from the impact and said “follow me”. We ran through the observation car (empty because of the late hour,) to the rear door of the first coach. We had to force the sliding door open because the air-operated system had failed. I grabbed a loose fire extinguisher and used it to prop the door open. Inside was a scene of utter chaos. People were strewn all about the coach. Some lying in the aisle, others underneath seats, and still others collapsed in each others arms. Mothers were calling out to their children, husbands to wives, and all were looking to me for direction and answers. I stood in the door, told the attendant to stay by the door and send the people to the rear. Then through the babble I yelled as loudly and as forcefully as I could. “Ladies and gentlemen please listen to me”. “Clear the aisle I have to get to the front of the coach”. I don’t know if it was the authority in my voice, or the uniform, but the people, stunned and bewildered, parted like Red Sea before Moses. 1 ran to the front door of the coach, which was hanging half off of what was left of the bridge, and looked through the shattered window at a scene straight from Dante’s Inferno.

Fog and fire were everywhere. I could clearly see the entire scene. People were in the water or standing on sunken debris. I thought to myself “dear God show me what to do first” I really thought that the rest of the bridge was going to collapse, so I yelled to a group of people below to clear the area under the coach and swim to the North side of the bridge. I knew I had to get to the water. As I turned to the people still behind me in the coach, I said “listen up. We’re going to do this just like a high-school fire drill” “I want everyone to file out to the rear starting here in the front to relieve this end of the car from the weight”. Please move quickly, and follow the directions of the attendant at the rear." They quietly followed behind each other still numb from disbelief of what had happened. Some were softly crying, and some of the men were asking me what had happened. I honestly couldn’t tell them, because I still could not comprehend what had taken place.

I called D.K. on the radio and told him what I was seeing. I said, “Brother, we are in deep trouble. Call everyone you can get, including the Coast Guard.” D.K. asked me if I could see the engines. He was worried about the engineers. I told him that I could see the locomotives but couldn’t see the front. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what I already knew. I could see from the mass of flames, and the jumble of steel, that, unless they’ had been thrown clear by the initial impact, they were gone. It was a heartbreaking moment.

Meanwhile D.K., cool under fire was organizing the rescue operation at the rear of the train. We evacuated everyone from what was left of the train to the embankment at the rear. Help was on the way.

After clearing the train, I crawled through the wreckage on the bridge to the end in the middle of the bayou. As I was directing people toward the bank with my flashlight, I looked at the coach that had landed in the middle of the bayou. It was staffing to sink! I could see people’s hands pressing against the inside of the windows, frantically trying to push or break the glass. “Why aren’t they coming out the back door which was still above water,” I thought. Then I remembered the door that we forced open in the first coach. “Dear God,” I thought, “it won’t open.”

I took off my shoes, told D.K. that I would be off the radio, and dove into the murky water hoping I wouldn’t hit a submerged object. As I frantically swam towards the rear door on the coach, I realized that I was in a race against time. I was about ten feet away when the passenger coach sank below the water, taking 23 men, women and children with it. I fought back tears of frustration and anger against the powers-that-be that would allow innocent people to die that way as I swam against the current back to the bridge piling, knowing that I would need the height advantage above the water to be able to see the rest of the people in the water. I finally managed to jump from the remains of the bridge to the deck of a smaller tug boat, and from their directed the remainder of the rescue operation in the river.

Of all the people who survived the initial impact and fire, I am proud to say that all were rescued either by Amtrak crew members or the crews of the many boats who responded to the call from the Coast Guard.

I would eventually meet Willie Odom and Captain Stabler many times over the following years as we wound our way through one hearing or another. Both are broken men, in spirit as well as physical stature. The first time I saw Willie Odom, he was a medium-sized man about my height, and in good health. Several years later at yet another trial, he reminded me of a walking dead man, only responding to direct questioning, and never raising his eyes from the floor. I never saw Captain Stabler again after the National Transportation Safety Board hearings in Mobile. I assume he is pretty much in the same mental state as Willie Odom. I have deep empathy for both men, and all who endured that tragic night in the swamps of Alabama, I have come to realize over the years that it was, after all, an accident, but an accident that would impact a great many lives for a great many years. As for me, the trials are finally over, the settlements made, and I have finally been allowed to slip into obscurity once again. Each year, as I have since the accident, I borrow a friend’s boat, buy a small wreath, and make the journey down the bayous to the bridge at Bayou Canot. A granite memorial has been placed on the bank near the bridge, and it is here that I sit in these peaceful surroundings, and ponder the ways that fate deals with human lives. It is still absolutely amazing to me how two completely separate sets of circumstances can come together in such a disastrous way in such a peaceful place. My life, the lives of the passengers and crew of the Sunset Limited, and the lives of the crewmembers of the tugboat Mauvilla are forever entwined and changed by the night of September 22, 1993.

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