(ABC News/WTNH) – A Miami-bound Amtrak train appeared to be on the wrong track when it collided with a freight train in South Carolina early Sunday, killing two people and injuring 116, according to authorities.
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.”
The two people who died were the train conductor and engineer, the county coroner said.
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 and the Federal Railroad Administration in the investigation of the crash.
Amtrak officials with the passenger railroad said the freight line controls signaling and dispatch on the rails.
Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s president and chief executive officer, told reporters in a telephone news conference that CSX railroad operates all aspects of the tacks in the area the crash occurred.
“They are in complete control of the track, the signaling, the switching and, in fact, our train engineers and conductors as we move over their railroad are directed and in regular contact with the dispatch center at CSX,” Anderson said.
He said the switching system in the area was down for maintenance at the time of the crash and the train crew was communicating with a CSX dispatcher via a telephone communication system between. He sad at the time of the crash, the signaling system that controls traffic on the four tracks in the area was down for maintenance.
“Normally the train is directed by the dispatcher and the dispatcher in this case was CXS,” Anderson said. “The control of which train is on which track is within the authority of the dispatcher and the host railroad that controls the switch.”
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He said Amtrak train 91, which was traveling from Penn Station in New York to Miami, should have been on the main line, but it was directed to tracks just east of it, where a CXS train loaded with automobiles was parked.
The Amtrak locomotive struck the rear of the CXS train, Anderson said. The speed the Amtrak train was going at the time of the collision is still under investigation, but Anderson said he believed the speed limit in the area is 59 miles per hour.
ABC News reached out CSX, but the company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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. At least 62 people were treated at three hospitals in the area, said Dr. Eric Brown, the executive physician for Palmetto Health.
He said three children were among those treated at hospitals.
Brown said six people were admitted to hospitals for more severe injuries, including head trauma.
Anderson said that besides the P-42 locomotive, the Amtrak train was comprised of three coach cars, a cafe lounge car, two sleeper cars and a baggage car.
Alexandra Delgado of Tampa, Florida, told ABC News she boarded the train in Raleigh, North Carolina, about 9:30 p.m. Saturday and was riding the rails because she’s terrified to fly. She said she was sitting in a car near the front of the train when the crash occurred.
“People were screaming. I thought I was gonna die. I didn’t think I was gonna survive that,” Delgado said as she waited at Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital in Columbia to be treated for two injured knees. “When we crashed, everyone got ejected from their seats… Trays all over.”
She said her sister-in-law, who was sitting next to her on the train, suffered a shattered ankle. She said she saw an elderly woman with a bloodied face and a bone sticking out of her leg, and another women who was sitting in front of her with a severe jaw injury.
“Don’t ask me to get on another train,” Delgado said. “I’m never gonna get on a train.”
Passenger Derek Pettaway 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 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.
White House officials said President Trump, who is in South Florida today, was briefed on the train crash.
“My thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims involved in this mornings train collision in South Carolina. Thank you to our incredible First Responders for the work they’ve done!” Trump said in a tweet.
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 would ask that they say a prayer for these people involved,” 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 of the Go Team, an NTSB spokesperson told ABC News.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao sent Jim Ray, her senior advisor, to the crash scene to monitor the situation, the agency said in a statement.
“It is important to understand the factors that contributed to this tragic accident and how all stakeholders can ensure a safe and reliable rail system going forward,” the agency’s statement reads.
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal expressed condolences for the victims and called for railroads to become safer following the crash:
America’s railroads must be made safer. Proven technology like Positive Train Control cannot continue to be delayed. On safety, business as usual must end.
— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) February 4, 2018