The Wreck of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited
H. Richard Eisenbeis, Sue Hanks, and Bruce Barrett University of Southern Colorado
On September 22, 1993, the Sunset Limited, the pride of Amtrak, glided swiftly along through the warm, fall night. A dense fog hugged the countryside. Because there was nothing to see through the train’s windows, many passengers dozed peacefully, lulled to sleep by the gentle, rhythmic, clickety-clack of iron wheels passing over jointed rails. Crewmembers roamed the aisles and halls making sure that those guests still awake were accommodated and comfortable. In less than a second, this peaceful scene was shattered by a thundering roar as seats were torn from the floor and passengers were sent flying through the cars. At 2:53 a.m. Amtrak’s only transcontinental passenger train, the Sunset Limited, plunged into Big Bayou Canot, killing 47 passengers. Eight minutes earlier at 2:45 a.m., a towboat, pushing six barges and lost in a dense fog, unknowingly bumped into the Big Bayou Canot Bridge knocking the track out of alignment. The train, traveling at a speed of 72 mph in the dense fog, derailed as a result, burying the engine and four cars five stories deep in the mud and muck of Big Bayou Canot.4,7,8,10,12,13 Bruce Barrett, a locomotive engineer, has described what might have been occurring in the cab of Amtrak engine Number 819 prior to the wreck.2 This scenario is based upon my 17 years’ experience as a locomotive engineer on a major western railroad and upon the compilation of bits and pieces of data from public records and accounts of the accident. Engineer Michael Vincent was at the controls of the two-week-old General Electric “AMDCopyright © 1999 by the Case Research Journal, H. Richard Eisenbeis, Sue Hanks, and Bruce Barrett. All rights reserved.
103” locomotive. Engineer Billy Rex Hall was in the cab with Vincent along with Ernest Lamar Russ who was qualifying as an AMTRAK engineer on this portion of the run. I can almost see the instrument lights as they cast a soft, orange glow across the cab of the locomotive, highlighted by the light from the train’s headlight bouncing off the impenetrable fog. I can hear the three men calling out the colors of the railroad signals (sort of like traffic lights for automobiles) as they came into view and discussing the restrictions that would affect the train over the next few miles. The new locomotive, shaped like a bullet, would have been the topic of conversation. Engineers enjoy comparing the “old days” with the new technology as it responds to the movement of their hands on the controls as the train clipped along at 103.53 feet per second. While the headlight beam may have reached 1,000 feet in clear weather, given the dense fog, the visibility would more likely have been less than 100 feet. As the Bayou Canot Bridge appeared in the fog, they would have had no hint of what lay ahead. Even if the headlight had detected the slight shift of the tracks to the left, there would have been less than a second for Vincent to react. I can see his hand as he reached too late for the emergency brake as the 150-ton locomotive turned into an uncontrollable beast and lurched to the left, starting a dive that would bury the locomotive 46 feet—equivalent to five stories—into the muddy bank of the bayou. I can sense the bridge collapsing under me and momentarily hear the locomotives and lead cars dropping into the water and debris below. I can feel the locomotive’s windshield glass against
’ SUNSET LIMITED
my face and hands as it shatters inward. I can see myself recoiling in terror as water and mud extrude into the cab, helplessly entombing me and my two companions in our muddy coffin.
At 2:33 a.m., twenty minutes earlier, Amtrak’s only transcontinental passenger train, had eased out of the Mobile, Alabama station to continue its streak eastward, thirty-three minutes behind schedule— scheduled departure was 2:00 a.m. (Exhibit 1). It had...
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