Towboat pilot thought radar showed barge


Garry Mitchell

MOBILE, Ala. (AP)—A towboat pilot thought an object on his radar screen was a barge parked in fog. He headed toward it and felt a thud shortly before the Amtrak train wreck that killed 47 people, federal investigators said Wednesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board gave that account from Willie Odom in a summary updating its investigation of the worst disaster in Amtrak’s 23-year history.

Lawyers for the towboat crew, including Odom, gave a similar account at a news conference last Friday.

The NTSB said it appears the towboat’s barges hit the bridge, weakening it moments before the train plunged off it into Big Bayou Canot.

The summary also said electronic devices salvaged from the Amtrak locomotives show the Sunset Limited was traveling about 72 mph across the rail bridge, a preliminary finding that would put the train slightly over the 70 mph speed limit.

Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said the 72 mph estimate was not NTSB’s conclusive ruling, but if it was determined to be the speed ‘‘it’s so small an increment as to be insignificant as to cause and severity of the accident.’‘

The six-barge tow found itself in fog and Odom began looking for a place to tie up until the weather cleared, the summary said. Deckhand Charles Taylor was on the starboard barge bow looking for a safe place to tie up, but Odom called him back because he couldn’t see him and feared for his safety.

Odom told investigators he had never been on Big Bayou Canot before and was unaware of the bridge used by Amtrak. The bayou is about a half-mile from the Mobile River, where the barge was supposed to be.

On radar, Odom saw what he thought was another barge tied up in the fog. He said he felt a thud, but can’t recall the time, the NTSB said.

The captain of the towboat Mauvilla, Andrew Stabler, then took over. The NTSB said when Stabler radioed his first distress call, he apparently wasn’t aware of the railroad accident.

Odom said he soon heard a ‘‘swoosh’‘ sound from left to right, then saw fire in the bayou as locomotives hit the muddy bank and two passenger cars sank in bayou water.

Stabler said he saw fire erupt, disconnected the towboat from the barges and pushed all six against the shore, the NTSB said. Stabler and the crew then helped rescue 17 Amtrak survivors.

In all, 163 people survived.