Screams fill 911 calls after fatal SC train crash
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – Witnesses flooded authorities with calls pleading for help for screaming, bloodied passengers of a derailed children’s train ride whose driver was quoted as telling police in reports that he was going too fast before the crash that killed a boy.
“Hurry. There’s a whole bunch,” one frantic caller said in one 911 call, the audio obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act. “One kid’s leg almost tore off. One kid’s not breathing.”
“The train fell off the bridge, and there were a bunch of little kids on it,” another caller said, screams filling the background. “It’s a bloody mess,” said another.
The callers reported chaotic scenes from a park in Spartanburg in the state’s northwest, where a nearly 60-year-old train derailed Saturday and toppled off a bridge, killing 6-year-old passenger Benji Easler.
Authorities say 27 others suffered injuries from bumps and bruises to broken bones. Some children were carried off in stretchers.
In one of the more than 30 calls, a woman describes a boy turning blue while two people perform CPR on the child. “He’s probably seven. It’s not good for him at all,” another caller said o the boy.
Matt Conrad, the 42-year-old train operator who also was injured, told police he knew he was driving too fast just before tragedy struck, according to documents released Tuesday.
“I was going too (expletive) fast,” Conrad told a police officer riding with him to the hospital after Saturday’s crash, according to incident reports released by the Spartanburg Public Safety Department.
Authorities have not said what caused the crash, but Conrad’s statement bolsters comments from witnesses who said the train sped up during its third lap around a circuit.
Many of those on the train were members of Corinth Baptist Church in Gaffney, where Benji Easler’s father is a pastor. A minister acting as their spokesman said passengers told him the train was speeding up on its final circuit.
“All of my people said the train got faster and faster,” the Rev. Nathan Ellis said. “They felt like it was increasing in speed and something was wrong.”
The ride was supposedly checked by a state inspector last Wednesday and allowed to open for operation. But after the crash, authorities say, the inspector came forward to say that he had falsified his report and had not checked the train’s speed because its battery was dead.
State officials said the inspector was fired Monday.
County parks officials disputed several of Conrad’s online assertions well before the crash that the train involved in the wreck hadn’t run in years.
In a Dec. 4 posting on “Railway Preservation News,” Conrad said the nearly 60-year-old train was sold in 1961 and didn’t return to Spartanburg until 2003, at which point Conrad said the train “never really operated” and had a leaking transmission and broken brakes.
Spartanburg County parks spokeswoman Nisha Patel confirmed that the train had been sold but said it was in operation during the summer of 2009. The train wasn’t running in 2010 while its engine and brakes were refurbished – work Conrad was hired to do in April, she said.
Patel also disputed Conrad’s assertion that there had been “no appreciable” maintenance on the park’s tracks since 2002.
In his blog posting, Conrad also wrote that damage on some of the tracks had become so severe “they were starting to cause derailments.”
Patel said there had been no derailments prior to Saturday’s crash.
Virginia Conrad, the train driver’s mother, described her son as a kind parent who would never intentionally harm anyone and who rushed to help injured passengers.
“When he did come to, he joined the rest. He helped to rescue people,” she said. “He walked the train and helped those that he could.”
His mother described Conrad as a railroad history buff since his youth who relished driving children on the train.
Conrad was hired to drive the train in 2010, according to county parks officials.
“This has hit him terribly hard,” Virginia Conrad said.