04/19/2002 - Updated 10:11 AM ET

4 killed as Amtrak train derails in Florida

CRESCENT CITY, Fla. (AP) — James Pierce had just settled into his sleeper car for a 16 1/2-hour train trip to Washington when the train screeched off the rails and slammed into pine trees lining the tracks.

"It felt like it was sliding to the left and suddenly it just toppled," said Pierce, an Amtrak attendant from Huntingtown, Md.

Four people were killed and 133 injured when 14 of the 16 passenger cars on the Amtrak Auto Train — a favorite among tourists traveling between the Northeast and Orlando's theme parks — derailed Thursday night in a remote area of north Florida.

The death toll had been reported at six, but was revised by investigators and medical officials, Lt. Bill Leeper of the Florida Highway Patrol said Friday.

"There was some confusion with body parts inside the wreckage," Leeper said.

It could not be immediately determined why the train derailed, officials said. The track had been inspected hours before the crash and had been in good condition.

"Apparently the engineer went into an emergency braking mode — we don't know why," Highway Patrol public information officer Chuck Williams said.

Amtrak said the train, which transports passengers and their cars between Sanford, Fla., and Lorton, Va., was carrying 440 passengers and 28 crew members. The train left Sanford after 4 p.m. and derailed about an hour later 60 miles north of Orlando.

Leeper said he didn't know how many people were seriously hurt.

Pierce said he grabbed hold of the sleeper car's curtains when the train left the track, and within seconds he found himself hanging in the air. After the train came to a stop, Pierce said he removed the emergency window and began pulling people out of the cabin.

"Suddenly you could feel the brakes scraping," said David Sheldon, 71, who was traveling with his wife, Sylvia, from Boca Raton. Sheldon said it took about 30 seconds for the train to come to stop.

"It seemed like forever," he said.

Robert Dodd Sr., 74, of Willingboro, N.J., said he and his wife were sitting down to dinner when the train derailed.

"The girl said, 'Do you want white or red wine?"' Dodd said. "At first I said, 'White, no give me red' and that's the last thing I remember."

Rescue officials, using ladders to reach the overturned cars, helped survivors out of the train and reached through the windows to get to those still trapped inside.

Three passengers were flown by helicopter to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Dr. Kevin Ferguson said. One person was in critical condition with potentially life-threatening injuries, while the other two were in serious condition, he said.

Five men and four women were in serious condition at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, spokeswoman Kate Holcomb said late Thursday. Twenty-six people with minor injuries were taken to Memorial Hospital-Peninsula in Ormond Beach, spokeswoman Desiree Paradis said.

The National Transportation Safety Board was sending investigators to the scene.

The train consisted of two engines, 16 passenger cars and 202 automobiles stacked in 23 specially designed cars. The tracks are owned, operated and maintained by CSX Corp.

CSX spokeswoman Jane Covington said a veteran company inspector visually examined the tracks about eight hours before the crash and found them to be in good condition.

The derailment was the first Auto Train accident since 1998, when a train hit an empty car on tracks at a crossing in Jarratt, a rural town in southern Virginia. The front wheels of the lead engine derailed, but it remained upright. There were no injuries.

The Auto Train service carried 234,000 passengers in 2000, according to Amtrak, making it one of the most popular and successful routes of the nation's passenger rail line.

The Amtrak Reform Council, a body created by Congress, reported this year that Amtrak made money in 2000 only on the Auto Train and on rail lines in the Northeast.

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