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  • The Derailmentof the Sunset limitedSeptember 22, 1993

    Big Bayou Canot, Alabama


    Federal Emergency Management Agency

  • This document was scanned from hard copy to portable document format (PDF)and edited to 99.5% accuracy. Some formatting errors not detected during theoptical character recognition process may appear.

  • This report is part of a series of reports on technical rescue incidents across the UnitedStates. Technical rescue has become increasingly recognized as an important element inintegrated emergency response. Technical rescue generally includes the following rescuedisciplines: confined space rescue, rope rescue, trench/collapse rescue, ice/water rescue, andagricultural and industrial rescue. The intent of these reports is to share information about recenttechnical rescue incidents with rescuers across the country. The investigation reports, such as thisone, provide detailed information about the magnitude and nature of the incidents themselves;how the response to the incidents was carried out and managed; the impact of these incidents onemergency responders and the emergency response systems in the community; and the lessonslearned. The U.S. Fire Administration greatly appreciates the cooperation and information it hasreceived from the fire service, county and state officials, and other emergency responders whilepreparing these reports.

    This report was produced under contract EMW-94-C-4436. Any opinions, findings,conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the viewsof the U.S. Fire Administration or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    Additional copies of this report can be ordered from the U.S. Fire Administration, 16825South Seton Avenue, Emmitsburg, MD 21727.

  • The Derailment of theSunset Limited

    Big Bayou Canot, AlabamaSeptember 22, 1993

    Local Contact: Chief Edward A. BergerFire ChiefCity of Mobile Fire Department701 St. Francis StreetMobile, Alabama 36602


    This report details the response of the Mobile, Alabama Fire Department (MFD) to the

    derailment of a passenger train in a remote section of the Big Bayou Canot, nine miles north of

    Mobile. Two-hundred and twenty people were on board the train when it derailed, caught fire,

    and, in the case of some cars, became submerged in the Bayou. One-hundred and seventy-three

    people survived the derailment of the Sunset Limited.

    The majority of the rescue work was accomplished in under four hours. However, the

    incident was protracted because the MFD had to oversee recovery of the 47 deceased. This

    required sending divers into zero-visibility, subsurface, confined-space conditions. Furthermore,

    surface operations to support the body recovery required personnel to work in extreme heat and

    humidity for hours on end.

    Use of the Incident Command System permitted the MFD to run a safe and efficient

    operation in the face of extremely adverse conditions. While the technical operations are not

    especially illuminating, this incident is extremely instructive in understanding the value of tight

    incident control that is afforded through the Incident Command System.

  • Key findings of this investigation are:

    The Incident Command System worked extremely well. It allowed control over

    resources that were spread over a wide geographic area.

    Mutual aid was critical to handle an incident of this magnitude. Having formal

    agreements in place before the need occurred was important.

    Preparation of documentation for the National Transportation Safety Board was very

    time-consuming. Good documentation, initiated early, is key.

    Communications were difficult. Cellular phones helped more than portable radios. Large

    quantities of back-up batteries were needed.

    Morgue duty was exceptionally emotionally draining. Personnel should be rotated

    through this assignment frequently.

    Rehabilitation of personnel was a top safety consideration. This was especially necessary

    because of the work environment and the high heat and humidity.

    Many of the extrication tools that are designed for automobiles are ineffective on trains.

    The AMTRAK Emergency Evacuation Procedures guide lists alternative means of

    emergency access.

    Technical Rescue Incident Investigation Project Explained

    The Technical Rescue Incident Investigation Project is an effort of the U.S. Fire

    Administration to document case studies of certain technical rescue incidents. The project seeks

    to produce documentation in a lessons learned format in order to provide local emergency

  • responders, trainers, federal and state agencies, and other interested groups enhanced knowledge

    about technical rescue response and safety.

    Applicability to Sunset Limited Derailment

    The derailment, in the early hours of the morning, of a fully loaded passenger train into a

    remote waterway in an area without vehicular access might be thought to be the product of the

    imagination of a disaster exercise planner run wild. Unfortunately, this worst-case scenario did

    occur and tested the mettle of the MFD and emergency responders from several neighboring

    jurisdictions. While the actual technical operations were more directed towards recovery rather

    than rescue, the experiences of the incident managers and responders are instructive about the

    value of pre-incident planning, exercise, and the use of the Incident Command System.

    Investigation Methodology

    The research for this report was conducted through face-to-face interviews with many of

    the people who had incident command and operational responsibilities during the response to the

    derailment of the Sunset Limited. In addition to the interviews, documentation provided by the

    MFD and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was reviewed.1 Finally, a site visit

    was made to view the scene of the derailment.

    1The sections of this Technical Rescue Incident Investigation which deal with the sequence of events involved in thederailment of the Sunset Limited borrow heavily from the NTSBs report, NTSB/RAR-94101, Derailment of AMTRAKTrain No. 2 on the CSXT Big Bayou Carrot Bridge Near Mobile, Alabama, September 22, 1993. Sections of this reportare taken verbatim from that report and are indicated with bold Helvetica print. All times from the NTSB report havebeen converted to military time.


  • Acknowledgements

    This report could not have been written without the invaluable assistance of the Mobile

    Fire Department. Specific thanks are accorded to Chief Edward Berger for the hospitality he

    afforded and the resources he made available to complete the investigation. An equal measure of

    appreciation is due to Steve Huffman, the MFD Public Information Officer, who arranged and

    facilitated the numerous interviews necessary for the writing of this report. Finally, Boatswains

    Mates Rooks and Tucker, of the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office/Mobile, provided

    marine transportation to and from the crash site.


  • I. Introduction

    Mobile (population 265,000) is a heavily industrial port on Mobile Bay, in southwest

    Alabama, 31 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. The city has a central business district which

    lies adjacent to the port area. Low-, medium-, and upper-income residential areas surround the

    central business district, and many square miles of unusable swampland comprise an irregularly

    shaped panhandle which follows the Mobile River to the northeast. Because Mobile is a port

    and because paper production is a major industry, there is a large amount of hazardous material

    transported through and around the city.

    MFD is the areas largest fire department. It serves an area of approximately 210 square

    miles. MFD has 432 personnel, 18 engine companies, five truck companies, seven ambulances,

    a fire boat, and several other specialized units. The department answers approximately 18,000

    calls per year, of which about 12,000 are EMS-related.

    On September 22, 1993 at 0253 hours, Amtrak Train No. 2, the Sunset Limited, with 220

    people on board, derailed on a railroad bridge which crosses the 300-foot-wide Big Bayou Canot

    (pronounced can-not), in the Mobile Delta, approximately nine nautical miles from the mouth

    of the Mobile River. The ensuing crash caused the submersion of two passenger cars and fire to

    break out in a dorm-coach car, the baggage car, and a fuel cell. Forty-two passengers and five

    train crew members died, 111 passengers and crew members sustained injuries, and 62 people

    escaped without injury.

    II. Sequence of Events

    On September 21, 1993, the Sunset Limited, proceeding from Los Angeles to Miami, was

    delayed 34 minutes for repairs at a normally scheduled stop in New Orleans. The train departed

    New Orleans at 2334 hours. It arrived in Mobile at 0230 hours, where it stopped for about three

    minutes to drop off and pick up passengers.

  • The following table describes the train as it left Mobile. Beginning with the lead

    locomotive, cars are listed in the position which they occupied in the consist.2 AMTRAK floor

    plans are reproduced in Appendix A.

    Train Car

    Locomotive 819


    These Model F40PH diesel-electric locomotives deliver 3000

    horsepower and operate on #2 diesel fuel (stored in a storage

    tank on the underside of the locomotive). They are equipped

    with a 480 Volt AC power generator in the rear of the engine