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Train Crash At Gunpow

Updated on December 29, 2017
Anita Hasch profile image

I live on a homestead in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Writing and reading are my passion.

Passengers Preparing For Trip

On Sunday January 4, 1987, Jerry Evans leaves his house after saying goodbye to his wife, daughter and two year old son. He promises to be back before 12 pm. Jerry is the train driver for Amtrak’s Colonial 94 on the route from Washington DC to Boston Massachusetts.

In the wooded hills of northern Baltimore Country, 16 year old Ceres Horn is canvassing her family’s home for belongings before returning to Princeton University. A first year student studying astrophysics, Ceres dreams of becoming an astronaut.

Ceres Horn is a first year student at Princeton University. Her mother drives her to Baltimore, where she will catch the Amtrak Colonial train. There are 600 passengers on the train, as well as 12 crew members. This Amtrak train has 12 carriages. Ceres sits down in carriage 21236.

Doing The Pre-Departure Safety Check

At the Bayview freight yard at Baltimore Edward Cromwell, brakeman and Conrail driver Ricky Gates receive their assignment from the yard master. They are instructed to drive three freight locomotives to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The trip to Harrisburg is 180 km away, but it will be a easy drive as they will have no freight cars to pull. The locomotives have much easier handling.

At Gunpow they will have a delay as they wait for two passenger trains. Gunpow is the first interlocking of freight and passenger railway lines. But Gates and Cromwell have travelled this route often and know what to expect. They are both users of marijuana and Gates is a heavy drinker.

  • Gates has to do a pre-departure safety check before departure. He backs his engines into a test rack.
  • He looks at the cab’s signal box, a bulb is missing. It’s part of a display that tells a train driver to slow down and prepare to stop. He doesn’t worry about it.
  • Train drivers who delay the train over the little things are not popular.
  • This is a business where time is closely linked to money.
  • Gates checks the warning whistle. His whistle emits only a faint hiss.
  • Some muffle the whistle with insulation tape.
  • The whistle has been muffled with tape and he should have removed it.
  • In order to keep a freight train moving, a driver is supposed to keep his left foot on the ‘dead man’s’ pedal, if the driver’s foot leaves the pedal, the train stops.
  • The dead man pedal is probably the most commonly disabled safety device on a freight train. All a train driver has to do is put a spanner on top of it.


Smoking The Marijuana Joint

Gates and his brakeman pull out on to a freight line next to the high-speed passenger line. His engine has an inoperative dead man’s pedal, the throttle is set for acceleration. So Gates and Cromwell light up the marijuana joint. The three engine train picks up speed quickly, hitting 100km/h less than five minutes out of the yard. As with any routine Gates knows how much time should elapse from step to step. A marijuana high often distorts one’s sense of time. Gates and Cromwell pass Gunpow’s signal. It is telling them to slow down to 50 km/h. The cab warning whistle tries to sound but has been stifled. They go past the signal at 100kn/h.

The brakeman is known as a backup driver. His duty is to call out the signals and confirm the train driver’s answer. He should respond to signals if the driver fails to do so. But Cromwell does not do this. They fly past another signal less than 1600 from Gunpow at more than 100km. The signal is a warning to the crew to reduce speed and prepare to stop. Then Gates notices the home signal ahead which says STOP. He realizes that the high speed passenger train is coming on the other line and the switch is closed.


Danger Is Observed Too Late

Gates finally sees the danger and cuts the throttle and the emergency brakes slam on. The locked wheels through sparks and slide along the rails for nearly a minute. The rear locomotive gets caught in the closed switch when the two lead engines break through. Cromwell sees the headlights of a train coming around the curve. He shouts to Gates to jump. Coming around the curve, Evans sees the stop signal and throws on the emergency switch. He is killed instantly. The Conrail engine explodes into pieces the diesel fuel ignites by the downed power lines. The Colonial’s cars keep on coming shoving those in front of it off the tracks, Carriage 21236 where Ceres Horn is sitting turns over onto its side and people are flung around.


Gates Runs Too Fetch A Fire Extinguisher

Gates shouts into his portable radio to the Amtrak tower operator that there is an emergency. Then he runs back to the Conrail lead engine to fetch a fire extinguisher. When he returns to the Amtrak train he notices a man pinned between the engine and the top carriage. He uses the fire extinguisher to stop the flames that are moving towards the injured man. The man is still trapped when he dies a few hours later. The residents living in the surrounding suburbs were soon on the scene, assisting where they could. Volunteers went into the carriages and carried out the injured. They supplied first aid and blankets. Nearby homes were used as first aid centers and communications bases.

Lost Lives

Fifteen Colonial passengers are killed all besides two from car 21236. Ceres’s mother Susan sees the coverage of the accident on television when she returns home after she had dropped her at the station. Ceres’s father is in Israel and flies back immediately when he hears that his daughter’s train had crashed. Susan’s sister goes to the morgue at the hospital to identify her body.

Gates and Cromwell agree to lie to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing. They denied that they had taken drugs but blood tests soon find evidence of marijuana use. Investigation showed that had Gates could have stopped in time if he had obeyed the slow down signal. They were both suspended by Conrail and resigned a few months later. Cromwell made a deal with the Attorney of Baltimore County State. He testified before a grand jury about agreeing to lie, smoking marijuana, the whistle and the missed signals, after he was promised immunity from prosecution.

Gates was indicted on 16 counts of manslaughter, he pleaded guilty to one account of manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of 1000 dollars. For obstructing the federal investigation he was sentenced to an additional three years. Following this accident an automatic train control bill was passed. All train drivers have to be licensed by the Federal Government.

© 2017 Anita Hasch


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    • Anita Hasch profile imageAUTHOR

      Anita Hasch 

      11 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Shyron you are so right. A train driver has a lot of responsibility. This story goes to show what can happen when you do not take your job seriously. My PC was down and I am now getting used to my new Tablet. My previous comment to you contains a spelling mistake. Did fix it but it is still wrong.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      12 months ago from Texas

      Anita, this just goes to show people that you can't shortcut safety, haste makes waste and a major train wreck in this case.

      Blessings my friend


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