Amtrak crash: North Carolina residents who boarded hours earlier recall the accident

Among the 116 people injured in the Amtrak train that crashed into a stationary freight train in South Carolina early Sunday were North Carolina residents who had boarded the night before.

The crash killed two Amtrak employees — Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Ga.; and conductor Michael Cella, 26, of Orange Park, Fla.

A misaligned track switch sent the Amtrak onto a side track where a CSX freight train rested, The State reported. Silver Star train 91 hit the CSX freight train about 2:35 a.m. Sunday in Cayce, S.C.

The Amtrak train had been traveling from New York to Miami. The lead engine and a few passenger cars derailed.

The train had stopped in Rocky Mount, Raleigh, Cary, Southern Pines and Hamlet in North Carolina on Saturday between 7 and 11:30 p.m. before crossing the state line into South Carolina, according to the train schedule.

It stopped in Raleigh just after 9 p.m. Saturday, a spokesperson for Amtrak told The News & Observer. Amtrak declined to comment on how many passengers boarded the train in Raleigh or in Cary.

Some passengers were jostled awake when the train crashed, including Matthew Cheesman, superintendent of the Perquimans County School District in Hertford, N.C., and his wife and 9-year-old daughter, according to several news reports.

Cheesman and his family boarded the train at the Rocky Mount Amtrak station Saturday evening to visit family in Florida and go to Disney World, WIS television in Columbia reported.

Cheesman told WIS that he was inside one of the train cars that derailed.

“We remember being thrown out of our seats onto the floor with a lot of metal coming down around us,” Cheesman told ABC11. “We remember the lights going off, the smell of smoke and just being banged around.”

Cheesman told ABC11 he had a long carpet burn on his back from being thrown from his seat, but no one in his family suffered major injuries.

Eric Larkin, from Pamlico County, told The Associated Press that he didn’t know where he was when the train came to a complete stop.

He felt the train leave the tracks as it hit a curve, according to the report. The crash broke loose his seat and threw his body into a row of seats in front of him, hurting his knee, the report said.

Larkin said he heard screams and crying around him and saw some passengers were bleeding.

“It's a blessing to be alive,” Larkin told The AP. “I thought that I was dead.”

Tronia Dorsey, the mother of former Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Andre Neblett, was another passenger on the Silver Star, according to the report.

A seat fell into Dorsey’s legs. She checked into a hospital but was later discharged with minor injuries, according to the report.

Dorsey described the crash to her son as causing “massive jolts” and told of “chaos” as babies cried in the dark rail compartment.

Neblett drove from Charlotte to collect her bags, which had been sent to an American Red Cross shelter.

Ryan Roberts and Eli Reda told The State they drove from Raleigh to Columbia to check on their wives, who were injured in the crash.

Both men had dropped off their wives at the Amtrak station in Raleigh on Saturday. The two women were headed to Florida.

“They were sleeping and woke up to a nightmare,” Roberts told The State. “They were horrified.”

Reda said his wife suffered a cut on her forehead and a sprained ankle.

The investigation

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the passenger train veered down a side track because a switch had been locked in place. The switch diverted the train from the main line to a side track, The Associated Press reported.

CSX Corp. is a freight railroad operator that runs a stretch of the track where the passenger train collided with one of the company’s freight trains.

A CSX crew on the freight train had moved the switch to drive that train to the other side of the track after unloading 34 train cars of automobiles, according to the report.

Sumwalt told The AP that the switch was padlocked “as it was supposed to be,” but the system that operates train signals in the area wasn’t working.

CSX dispatchers were operating the signal manually, Sumwalt said, and it was too early to know whether the signal was red to warn the Amtrak crew that the switch was not set to keep the Amtrak train on the main line.

Amtrak said eight crew members were working on the train and 139 passengers were on board.

Several reports have said there were nine crew members and 147 people on board.

Sumwalt said the collision could’ve been avoided if the GPS-based “positive train control” system had been installed in the area, according to the report.

The system registers the location of all trains and the position of all the switches in an area. The system can slow a train if there’s a problem ahead on the track, The State reported.

Congress required some railroad mainlines to implement positive train control by the end of 2015, but that deadline was extended by at least three years to Dec. 31, 2018, according to the report.

The NTSB will continue to investigate whether the crews of the trains received proper rest and had taken required drug and alcohol tests. Investigators will also check cell phone records and the signal system that was down during the wreck, The State said.

Camila Molina: 919-829-4538, @Cmolina__