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From the archives: A look back at the Florida circus train crash of 1994

Rescue workers search train cars one by one looking for a missing passenger and any animals that were still aboard the train that crashed near Lakeland on Jan. 13, 1994. The circus derailed on the way to Orlando for a circus performance.  [MIKE PEASE | Times (1994)]
Rescue workers search train cars one by one looking for a missing passenger and any animals that were still aboard the train that crashed near Lakeland on Jan. 13, 1994. The circus derailed on the way to Orlando for a circus performance. [MIKE PEASE | Times (1994)]
Published Nov. 19, 2014

EDITORS NOTE: The news Wednesday that a train carrying carnival equipment had caught fire in Pasco County reminded many of us at the Times of this classic story about the crash of a circus train near Lakeland on Jan. 13, 1994. It is republished here just as it appeared in print in 1994.

• • •

LAKELAND — Inside the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train, an ominous vibration jostled performers out of bed.

They heard the scream of metal wheels ripping through metal track.

Then, silence.

Moments later, through a shroud of fog and dust at 9:15 a.m. Thursday, rescuers saw 16 mangled railcars that jumped the track.

"Help," a shrill voice wailed from inside car 89.

Burly men, drawn to the crash from a nearby machine shop and Harley Davidson motorcycle shop, broke through locked sleeping cars to reach the terrified occupants.

Out they stumbled — dazed Russian acrobats in sweatpants, a startled clown out of costume. Midgets hugged each other in the fog.

"It's a catastrophe. We don't know what will happen now, but we need to work. We lost everything," said Russian Cossack horse trainer Kydyrjan Boulibekov, 43, who fled the wreck with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. She clutched a stuffed Barney.

The circus train, en route from St. Petersburg to a three-day stand in Orlando, derailed about four miles south of Lakeland near U.S. Highway 92. Several of the 150 to 200 train passengers were injured, and two were killed.

The first fatality was discovered as the Zerbini brothers — Tony, 9, and Christopher, 6 — climbed from the windows in car 98.

"My dad's still in there," Christopher said.

Donnie Huffman, 32, climbed inside the car and found elephant trainer Ted Svertesky, crushed from the waist up. Svertesky, who was engaged to the mother of the Zerbini boys, was pronounced dead at the scene. It took rescue workers using search dogs until after noon to find Ceslee Conkling, 28, a circus clown from Fort Worth, Texas, who also died in the crash.

Rescue workers still were searching when an Orlando television news helicopter, shooting aerial footage of the accident, crashed in a nearby athletic field. The pilot was hospitalized and the cameraman was treated and released.

More than a dozen circus workers went to Lakeland hospitals for treatment of minor injuries. None of the 25 children on board was hurt.

All of the derailed cars in the 53-car train were in the mid-section of the train, and none were animal cargo cars.

Circus animals were shaken up but not injured. The heavier horses and elephants, which could derail the train if carried in the middle, were in the front cars. Lions, tigers, bears and other animals were at the back of the train.

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Rescue workers from Polk County and Lakeland cordoned off the area, sent in a hazardous materials team to contain a diesel spill, then began a painstaking coach-by-coach search using axes and ladders.

The cause of the wreck has not been determined, but late Thursday investigators were focusing on the possibility that the train dragged something along the tracks before it derailed. Witnesses reported seeing an object, possibly a train wheel, scraping along the tracks.

Inch-deep grooves were cut in the asphalt where the rail line crosses Combee Road, the last road the train crossed before the derailment. The grooves in the wooden railroad ties were so deep the ties nearly were cut in half.

CSX Transportation, the Jacksonville company that owns the tracks, received a report Thursday morning that a train in the Plant City area was dragging something and spraying sparks or smoke. Two trains were stopped and inspected _ the circus train and another train northbound on a different set of tracks.

Inspectors found damage on the northbound train but nothing on the circus train, which was stopped between Plant City and Lakeland, according to CSX and the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

"The call that was generated was not about this train," said Maj. Grady Judd of the Sheriff's Office. "When this train was checked, it appeared to be all right."

The gray cars, emblazoned with the logo of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, derailed soon after. Thursday night, what the train may have been dragging remained a mystery.

The train was pulled by three CSX locomotives. The three-person CSX crew was taken to a Lakeland hospital for drug tests, a federal requirement in a derailment.

The tracks have a speed limit of 50 mph, although Judd said the 3,600-ton train was "traveling relatively slow" when the derailment occurred.

The derailment severed the main rail line between Tampa and Orlando, but CSX spokesman Lynn Johnson said other tracks could be used to take trains east and north around the accident. The 800 feet of damaged track could be repaired as early as this morning.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived Thursday night to lead the inquiry.

A circus employee listening to CSX walkie-talkies said the crew appeared to get its first warning of the crash from signals in the locomotive that cars had been uncoupled.

"At first they didn't think it was that bad," said Michael Connors, a night watchman who rode in the front of the train with the horses. "Then the talk started flying back and forth saying, "Call the ambulances!' ''

Connors said the circus train was well-maintained and had an overhaul during its winter break.

Many of the circus employees are Russian or Chinese and a language barrier proved to be a problem for rescue workers. At one point firefighters tried to tell two performers that they had found their dog, but couldn't make themselves understood. Someone standing nearby said, "Woof, woof."

Among the first to reach the wreckage was Freddy Johnson, 39, who works at the nearby Harley Davidson repair shop.

"It was a jumbled up mess," he said. "People were screaming. All the doors were locked. Everybody was terrified. We pulled out one man pinned between a car and a Frigidaire." Most circus workers spent the night at hotels in the Orlando area.

Before Thursday, the safety record for Ringling Brothers' two privately owned 53-car circus trains was unblemished, Federal Railroad administration officials said. They said the circus train was required to have an inspection certifying it met all federal safety standards before the train was originally coupled together.

Four Amtrak passenger trains experienced slight delays and reroutings Thursday as a result of the derailment. Spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said Amtrak used buses to get some passengers around the accident site; delays were kept to less than an hour.

If the 16 derailed cars are not cleared and the railway is not repaired by today , Amtrak officials are planning more rerouting. Passengers of train No. 88, scheduled to leave Tampa today and travel through Lakeland, instead will be bused to Lakeland to board another Amtrak train and continue to their ultimate destinations, Taubenkibel said.

The undamaged front of the train carrying horses and elephants, including the yearling elephants Romeo and Juliette, continued to Orlando Thursday night.

The animals in the rear of the train remained in their cars throughout the day and were to be routed around the accident and taken to Orlando.

Promoter Arlene Helminski said Thursday's derailment made it unlikely the show would go on as planned in Orlando.

Times researcher Barbara Hijek and staff writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.


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