Switch in wrong position key to Amtrak train crash

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CAYCE, S.C. (AP) - National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt says the key to the investigation into a fatal Amtrak train crash will be why a switch was turned to force the passenger train onto a side track and into a parked freight train.

Sumwalt said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that the switch was padlocked to send trains on the main line to the side track, which conductors are supposed to do when they change lines.

He says the freight train crew took the CSX train from one side track across the main line and back to another side track after unloading automobiles.

Sumwalt says investigators don't know if the signals further up the line indicated the track had been switched off the main route.

The conductor and engineer on the Amtrak train died and 116 other people were taken to hospitals after the passenger train crashed head on into the freight train around 2:45 a.m. Sunday in Cayce.

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An Amtrak train traveling from New York to Miami collided with a CSX freight train early Sunday morning in Lexington County, South Carolina, killing two Amtrak personnel and injuring more than 100, according to authorities.

The crash overnight Sunday caused the lead engine and some passenger cars to derail, Amtrak said in a statement. There were 139 passengers and 8 crew aboard the Amtrak train when it collided with the freight at around 2:35 a.m. Sunday morning, officials said.

One hundred-sixteen people in total had been taken to local hospitals, with injuries ranging from very minor to more serious, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said during a news conference Sunday morning.

The engineer of the Amtrak train, 54-year-old Michael Kempf, and the conductor, 36-year-old Michael Cella, were killed during the collision, Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher said during a news conference. Kempf was from Savannah, Georgia, and Cella was from Orange Park, Florida, she said.

Authorities said it was not immediately clear why the two trains collided near Cayce, South Carolina.

The CSX train was stationary at the time of the collision and appeared to be empty at the time of the crash, officials said. McMaster said there were several train tracks at the location of the collision.

"Our information — subject to correction — is that this was not the main line," McMaster said. "That is, this was a loading track or a sidetrack … where the collision took place. That's subject to verification."

It appeared to him that the Amtrak train "was on the wrong track" when it hit the freight train, he said, but added that he deferred to transportation experts and the investigation was still ongoing.

"It's a horrible thing to see, to understand the force this involved," McMaster said, referring to the crash site.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it was sending a team to the site of the crash, and Amtrak said in a statement early Sunday afternoon that it was fully cooperating with the safety board.

Amtrak said that it is "deeply saddened" to report the death of two of its employees.

The company added that CSX maintains all of the tracks and signal systems in the area where the collision occurred. "CSX controls the dispatching of all trains, including directing the signal systems which control the access to sidings and yards," the statement said.

Railroad sources familiar with the investigation told NBC News that just before the crash, the CSX signals had been suspended for work. All CSX signals were offline, the sources said.

The Amtrak train, according to sources, was given verbal approval by CSX dispatch to proceed down a set of tracks. But the switch on those tracks was on the wrong position, sending the Amtrak train into a CSX train which was sitting still, pulled off to the side. There was no Positive Train Control system on the tracks at this location. Positive Train Control, according to sources, likely would've prevented the crash.

The collision was yet another crash highlighting Positive Train Control, a system that among other things is designed to prevent trains from speeding.

Dr. Steve Shelton, the director for emergency preparedness at Palmetto Health system, said at a news conference Sunday morning that they had received 62 patients across its three facilities.

"Currently there is one patient that is in critical condition, there are two others that are in serious and a few others that are currently being evaluated for possible serious conditions," he said.

Shelton added that the "majority" of patients did not sustain life-threatening injuries. Hospital officials said later Sunday that six patients had been admitted.

Lexington Medical Center said they received 27 patients with mostly minor injuries. Many were treated for cuts and bruises and released, while two others were admitted to Lexington Medical Center, spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson said.

Jaclyn Kinney, 22, from Pinehurst, North Carolina, was in the sleeper car with her boyfriend on their way to Orlando.

"We basically woke up to the train crash," she told NBC News.

"It knocked us around and we got bumped into the wall from the impact and the train derailed. The cafe car that was right in front of us was in much worse shape so we were lucky," she said.

"The staff members came by and made sure people were okay before we left the car. We were waiting for a few minutes before they evacuated us."

"There were a few people with noticeably bad injuries but most people didn't seem super injured," Kinney added.

President Donald Trump tweeted that his "thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims involved in this mornings train collision in South Carolina" and thanked first responders.

South Carolina's Emergency Management Division said 5,000 gallons of fuel was spilled as a result of the crash, with Hazmat responding to the scene. Officials said there was no further threat to the public.

It was the second major Amtrak incident in less than a week. On Wednesday, a train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat in West Virginia collided with a garbage truck. One person on the truck was killed.