The Derailmentof the Sunset limitedSeptember 22, 1993
Big Bayou Canot, Alabama
TECHNICALR E S C U EINCIDENT
Federal Emergency Management Agency
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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