Amtrak Derailment Kills 1, Injures 90

March 18, 2001 -- An Amtrak train derailment in southern Iowa left one person dead and another 90 people injured, but officials say it came very close to being much, much worse.

Amtrak's No. 5 from Chicago was en route to Emeryville, Calif., near Oakland, when the accident occurred in in a remote area of southern Iowa late Saturday night.

The California Zephyr passenger train was traveling about 50 mph at the time, but it was scheduled to be doing nearly 80 mph along that section of track. The engineer had slowed because of trouble with the whistle system at rail crossings.

One Car Turned Upside Down

The derailment occurred near Nodaway, Iowa, a small, rural town approximately 70 miles from the train's next stop in Omaha, Neb. It is possible that as many as nine cars came off the tracks. One of the train's cars was found turned upside down, according to Larry Drew, police chief of Corning, Iowa.

The train was carrying 195 passengers and 15 crewmembers.

The rescue effort was hampered because the accident happened in a remote area, far from homes and roads. Rescue units from four surrounding communities rushed to the scene.

The injured passengers were taken to six different area hospitals. Two were taken by helicopter from the scene to hospitals in Omaha and Des Moines.

At least seven people remained hospitalized this afternoon.

Drew described a very panicked scene when he got there, with people "scattered all over."

"One father called in and told us he couldn't find his two boys," he said. "I understand he has been reunited with them since."

Bumping Train Wheels and Emergency Rescues

Joseph Conn of Hobart, Ind., could feel the wheels bumping along the ties, so he knew the train had derailed despite little evident damage to his car. When he looked outside, he saw car after car derailed, including one down in a ditch to the side of the tracks.

"I saw one person come out on a backboard," Conn said. "I talked to that woman's husband. He said he got thrown clear across the car when the thing toppled over. It rolled down the embankment. It was wheels sticking in the air. It was probably 25 feet down the embankment."

He was impressed as he watched rescuers remove a woman with a broken leg from one of the train's cars.

"They basically brought her out of the second floor of that smoker car that was perpendicular to the tracks," Conn said. "They had to knock out a window. They went up with two ladders. Crews around here did a tremendous job. This place was swarming with people. I can't say enough about the people in this community. They've been wonderful."

Passengers who were not injured in the derailment were transported to the Nodaway Community Center.

Officials: Part of the Rail Popped Out

Officials believe the accident may have occurred when the top part of the rail cracked and popped up. That part, known as the "ball," includes the surface upon which the train's wheels ride.

Because the rail doesn't sever completely, the crack does not usually trigger the railroad's warning system.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said this afternoon they were investigating the possibility of a cracked rail.

ABCNEWS.com's Melanie Axelrod, ABC Radio's Steve Walsh, and Jerry Dietz of KCSI-FM in Red Oak, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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