Diesels in train crash said to ignore signal. Data recorders may reveal causes of worst Amtrak accident

Rescue workers using cranes yesterday continued searching the wreckage of a crumpled Amtrak train that derailed after a high-speed collision on Sunday, killing at least 15 people and injuring 177 in Amtrak's worst accident. The collision with a freight engine piled three passenger cars atop each other, blocking traffic on the busy Northeast rail corridor at the end of the New Year's holiday weekend.

Service was expected to be restored by Tuesday morning, the railroad said. Meanwhile, Joe Nall of the National Transportation Safety Board said seven investigators had arrived to begin a four-to-five-day inquiry.

The Colonial, bound from Washington, D.C., for Boston and Springfield, Mass., with about 520 people aboard, was traveling at least 90 miles per hour when it hit three Conrail locomotives on a switch that merges four tracks into two.

The Conrail diesels, which like the Amtrak train were northbound, had apparently run a stop signal, officials said. Larry Case, an Amtrak spokesman in Washington, said the Amtrak train normally would be traveling 110 mph at that point, seven miles east of Baltimore.

The two electric Amtrak locomotives derailed, along with all 12 cars of the train, and five of the passenger cars toppled on their sides, Mr. Case said.

``You were sitting there, and there were a few bangs, and then you were on the floor,'' said passenger Larry Habber of New York City.

As word of the accident spread, residents of Baltimore and Washington flocked to Red Cross centers to donate blood.

The injured passengers were taken to 10 hospitals.

The two Conrail crew members aboard the three-diesel unit will undergo drug tests and interviews, said John Riley, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

``The signal for the Amtrak should have indicated to proceed. The signal for the Conrail should have indicated to come to an absolute stop,'' he said.

Four recorders similar to the black boxes on airplanes had been recovered. Three came from the Conrail locomotives and another evidently came from the passenger train, Mr. Riley said.

In addition, he said, the switch has a recorder that tells which switches have which signals showing.

The worst previous wreck for Amtrak killed 11 people on June 10, 1971, in Salem, Ill.

Amtrak carries more people on the Boston-Washington corridor than do airlines -- 28,000 a day.

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