Eight of 11 people killed in the fiery crash of a commuter train and an Amtrak passenger train died from flames and smoke, not from the impact of the crash, a medical examiner said Monday.
The disclosure focused renewed interest on reports from survivors about jammed exit doors and windows aboard the commuter train. It also raised questions about the widespread use by Amtrak and other railroads of locomotives with diesel tanks that extend outside the main frame, making them more susceptible to rupture.
The Maryland Rail Commuter train smashed into the lead Amtrak locomotive at an angle during a snowstorm Friday in Silver Spring, Md., just north of Washington. The collision punched a gaping hole into the locomotive's side and ruptured a fuel tank. Burning fuel oil engulfed both the locomotive and the lead commuter car.
A second Amtrak locomotive, just behind the one that spewed the massive ball of flame, was of a newer model in which the diesel tanks are enclosed.
All of the 11 fatalities, including eight Job Corps trainees and three MARC crewmen, were inside the lead commuter car.
Dr. John Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner, said Monday that two crew members and one trainee sustained fatal injuries from the impact. The other eight died from the fire.
Investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board have not determined the cause of the crash. They are concentrating on the track's signal system and whether the MARC train's engineer noticed a yellow warning light three miles before the crash warning him to slow to 30 mph.
Investigators have determined the commuter _ a locomotive pushing three passenger cars _ was traveling 63 mph when the engineer, a 26-year railroad man, applied the brakes.
The brakes were applied 1,100 feet before the crash, presumably when the engineer saw the final red warning light and the Amtrak train as he rounded a blind corner. At that speed and with snow on the tracks, another 900 feet would have been required to bring the commuter to a halt, investigators said.
The commuter's speed was still 40 mph when it struck the Amtrak locomotive, which had just turned to its right to cross to a parallel track after passing a stopped freight train.
The NTSB also plans to ask the CSX Transportation Corp., which owns and operates the track, why a warning signal closer to the shunting switch than three miles was removed during a track overhaul three years ago.
But because investigators are interested in survivability of such a collision, they are following up closely reports that many of the victims survived the crash, only to die in the flames.
Lt. Denise Fox, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County, Md., Fire Department, said the night of the crash that an off-duty emergency medical technician from southern Maryland who was at the site saw "people banging on the windows, trying to get out."
"Upon arrival of our firefighters, those people were pretty much dead," Fox said.
Nine passengers aboard the MARC train survived.
The NTSB board member heading the investigation said over the weekend that survivors reported problems in the MARC cars with closed doors and emergency windows that did not pop open as they should have after impact.
"We found some doors that didn't open. We don't know the reasons why," the NTSB's John Goglia said. "We also found some exit windows, based on sketchy reports, (that) may not have opened the way we like to see them open."
Investigators also are likely to focus on the Amtrak locomotive's design that allowed its fuel tank to rupture. Witnesses reported flames shooting 40 feet into the air shortly after the crash.
Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said Monday the locomotive was built by General Motors in the late 1970s. He said Amtrak is replacing the older engines over several years.
Meanwhile, tests on the bodies of all three MARC crewmen, including engineer Richard Orr, 43, showed no evidence of alcohol use. Each had worked 25 years or more in railroad industry and had spotless records.