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Crash mobilizes midnight rescue

Investigators picked through muddy wreckage Sunday as they sought to determine why an Amtrak train bound for Northern California derailed here, killing one passenger, injuring 90 and spurring residents from a dozen small farm towns to mobilize a midnight rescue.

The California Zephyr was heading from Chicago to Emeryville, its passengers dozing or playing cards or toasting St. Patrick's Day in the lounge when a jolt shook the train late Saturday night. Then the lights went out. With a screech and a lurch, several cars toppled down a steep embankment, while others tipped sideways or bounced off the rails.

"Total darkness," said Ben Mrugala, a passenger from Wisconsin. "Mass confusion."

Some passengers were thrown against the ceilings of their cars. Others felt their cabins tilt and found themselves walking on the walls as they scrambled in the dark to find an exit.

"I felt a little jiggle and then the brakes went on, hard," said John Connair, who was heading to Colorado for a ski vacation with his wife and their three children. "You could hear the gravel, the wood, the metal all tearing apart. We bounced off the walls. It went on and on."

All 15 cars and two locomotives derailed. The wreckage stretched for a quarter of a mile.

"The way the train looked, I'm still amazed there weren't more injuries," said Larry Pond, chief of the volunteer fire department in the nearby town of Nodaway.

In fact, only seven passengers were hospitalized, three in serious condition. Most of the injuries were minor.

Amtrak did not confirm the name of the passenger killed, but the Associated Press identified her as Stella Riehl, 69, of Colorado Springs, Colo. Her son, Charlie Romstad, 46, told the news service that she was traveling home from Des Moines with the ashes of her brother, who died recently.

Rescue workers said the passengers seemed amazingly calm as they crawled over the tumble of luggage and into the frosty night. A few had "a quiver in their voice," Pond said, but there was no screaming, no hysteria. "They were kind of quiet," Connair said. "Confused."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash, which occurred about 75 miles southwest of Des Moines on a clear night, on a straight stretch of track.

The Zephyr was traveling about 50 mph, much slower than the 80 mph speed limit because the train's whistle was broken and the train had slowed down for a grade crossing about two miles up the tracks, according to Ted Turpin, the NTSB's investigator in charge.

The tracks at the derailment site were broken, and investigators were looking into the possibility that they were damaged prior to the accident.

The Zephyr that derailed amid the cornfields of Adams County was carrying 15 crew members and 195 passengers, including a group of Des Moines high school students heading west for a spring break ski trip.

Getting those aboard out of the wreckage took some doing.

The Adams County Sheriff's Department took control. But it has only four members _ including the sheriff. So a major volunteer effort was mobilized.

Volunteer firefighters and ambulance drivers from 13 tiny towns rushed to the scene. Others raced to the Nodaway Community Center, where they dipped into the stash of Bingo Night goodies to set up hot dogs, ham, cheese and hot drinks for the victims. A hospital dropped off stacks of blankets. The local grocer pitched in with hot dog buns and sandwich bread.