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Runaway Train; Engineer Disabled By Apparent Heart Attack

Aired May 15, 2001 - 14:20   ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: It is that runaway train that we are talking about and these are the first pictures of the train in question. These pictures from our affiliate WBNS from Columbus, Ohio.

Word is that the engineer on this train can't be contacted. So, this is a train that's running on its own; and that is a big concern. There had been reports that it has been traveling up to 42 miles per hour, and that it is carrying some type of flammable material. All along the route, the sheriff's departments are trying to keep the people away from the intersections where this train is going.

And we just talked with the Ohio State Highway Patrol just five minutes ago, and a sergeant with them told us that CSX, that runs this train, is attempting right now to stop it. Again, it's moving through northwest Ohio. And it's moving south. And they have not been able to contact the engineer, the dispatcher has said she thinks that perhaps he has suffered a heart attack. We just don't know. But we are trying to get this train stopped right now. And so, we will continue to bring you more information as we get it, and as we track this story.

WATERS: Let's talk more about the story now with Susan Coughlin, formally with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Ms. Coughlin, have you ever heard of a situation like this before?


WATERS: Susan Coughlin hung up on us, apparently. So...

So, again, we have a CSX train in Ohio. It's called a runaway train, because the engineer cannot be contacted. There is a presumption that there may be some health emergency onboard, perhaps a heart attack. And the highway patrol and other police agencies are watching crossings along the way, to protect them while some decision is made about how to get this train under control, which, we understand, is carrying hazardous materials.

Susan Coughlin, formally of the National Transportation Safety Board is now on the line with us.

Ms. Coughlin, have you ever heard of a situation like this before? SUSAN COUGHLIN, Well we've certainly had situations where there -- that an emergency developed while the train is under way, but this may be unique, you know, that they are unable to get the response from the engineer.

WATERS: Well, they're blocking off these railroad crossings, as I mentioned. But beyond there, is there some plan for getting onboard a train?

COUGHLIN: Well, as you know, if this train is in fact carrying hazardous materials, when they receive authority to carry hazardous material, they have to put in place an emergency response plan. So I am sure that the local officials, as well as the rail officials, are looking at what their options might be, in terms of an emergency action such as applying the emergency brake -- brakes on the train. And whether they can do that remotely or if they would have to actually board the train.

But I am sure that right now they are looking at their emergency responses, so that they can protect the public's interests.

WATERS: It strikes me as odd that there is no co-pilot, or is there some other person aboard this train?

COUGHLIN: Well, I don't know about this particular train. But it's certainly not unusual. It is a -- it is a one-person operation. And most trains do operate with one engineer and if it's a longer trip, there might be a relief. But depending on the run, it's not unusual for the train to be operated by one person.

WATERS: Do you know much about this run? Is there a spur or something like that that could be utilized?

COUGHLIN: I am sure that they'll be looking at the options that might be. Whether they can divert the train onto another track, whether there was a possibility of putting it on the siding, or a possibility of slowing the train's speed by diverting it to another track. And they'll be looking at all of those options.

But I am not myself familiar with Handcock County.

WATERS: When all of this is over, I imagine that NTSB investigators will be asking questions. What questions will they be asking?

COUGHLIN: Well, they'll obviously be looking at the monitoring of the train in progress. They'll be looking at whether or not the emergency response plan was adequate to cover the situation. They'll be looking at -- at what emergency equipment and monitoring equipment is aboard of the train, and making an assessment of whether this particular situation could be -- could have been mitigated by a better or different plan.

WATERS: I am being prompted to ask you about a dead man's switch. I am not certainly -- certain of what that is. But I am sure that you must. COUGHLIN: Well, it's essentially a device that -- that alerts the people who are monitoring the movement of the train that the engineer is actually engaged in driving the train. And it's a matter of -- of a certain interval, hitting a device that actually alerts -- alerts someone to the fact that he is awake and engaged and in the job.

And the presumption is that if he doesn't respond or if he takes his foot off of the pedal and doesn't hit the alerting device, that the train could possibly be thrown into emergency breaking, but whether or not this train is equipped with that, I am not aware.

WATERS: All right. Thank you for your help. Susan Coughlin, we'll be watching it. Formerly with the NTSB, National Transportation Safety Board.

The runaway train is a CSX train, 47 cars, carrying hazardous materials. It's obviously without a pilot right now. Or if there is a pilot, he cannot be reached. Is there a medical emergency onboard? We don't know. We'll continue to watch the story as police continue to protect railroad crossings along the way.

We're going to take a quick break. CNN LIVE TODAY will continue in a moment.


WATERS: Again, we are watching a set of tracks between Columbus and Toledo in Ohio where this CRX train is running, according to one report, from a sheriff's deputy whose department put a radar gun on the train up to 42 miles an hour. Some reports have indicated about 20 miles an hour. I imagine the grade has a lot to do with the speed of the train.

But at any rate, this train is significant because it's carrying hazardous materials and the engineer of the train reportedly has some sort of medical emergency, perhaps a heart attack. He cannot be contacted.

Right now, you see emergency vehicles. I don't know if this is -- if this is significant at a particular crossing, or all crossings between those two major cities. But we have had heard that motorists are being protected from this train. And that's about all they can do there.

I saw a man running alongside the train there.

ALLEN: We've seen that at several posts. People have tried to run along or see inside.

WATERS: I think they're trying to board -- there is somebody, he just got aboard. And that was what we were waiting for, what the emergency response plan was in an incident like this, and we were just told by Susan Coughlin, formerly of the NTSB that this a one-man operation. So, if the man on board is in some dire medical stress, this is the plan for getting aboard. So the train has been boarded, and it appears brakes have been applied, because the train definitely is slowing.

ALLEN: We don't know who that was that boarded the train, if they were someone authorized to do that. But, yes, the train is coming to a stop.

WATERS: Susan Coughlin is back with us, formerly NTSB. I don't know if you saw the picture, but that -- some man ran alongside the train and got on board.

COUGHLIN: Pretty dramatic.

WATERS: Yeah, the train is coming to a stop.


WATERS: And so, I guess that that was the emergency response plan, get somebody aboard.

COUGHLIN: Well, it's certainly would be the easiest way of gaining control of the train, and it sounds like they have -- have managed to avert what could have been a fairly dramatic situation, had they not been able to get somebody aboard the train.

WATERS: It kind of raises the hairs on the back of your neck a little bit when you watch something like this, realizing that there is someone on board who may be in dire medical circumstances, or even dead.

COUGHLIN: Well, that's the other -- the other consideration is that now there's an opportunity to provide some medical assistance for -- for the engineer, and that's a big concern as well.

WATERS: We see emergency people now rushing toward the train. We saw -- they must have planned a certain point for the interception of this, because we saw several emergency vehicles, including hook and ladders, ambulances and the like at this particular spot along the route.

COUGHLIN: Well, they obviously would want to time it if they were on an uphill portion of the track, they would be able -- the train obviously would be slow -- at a slower speed than when it started downhill, and that would probably factor into their decision of when to put somebody aboard the train.

WATERS: What -- other than getting the engineer off of the train, what -- what happens now?

COUGHLIN: Well, they'll -- I think that is really up to the local responders. Obviously, they don't have to put the emergency response plan for hazardous materials spill into effect, because that was averted.

But, obviously, they're -- they're going to be looking at getting medical attention for the conductor, and -- or excuse me -- the engineer, and then looking at how they might want to revise their operating plans in the future. You know, in terms of how the trains are staffed and how they're conducting the operation.

WATERS: And folks who are in their cars at this railroad crossing may want to reconsider their plans this afternoon. Possibly make a u-turn, because this train is probably going to be there for a while.

COUGHLIN: I would say that, looking at the length of that train, it probably is going to be a bit a wait. But trains cross that -- go across that intersection all of the time, and I am sure that they are going to move the train to another location as quickly as they can.

WATERS: OK. We are going to rerun the portion of the tape where the train pulled up to this railroad crossing, and as Ms. Coughlin mentioned, perhaps it was the grade that made the difference here, but the emergency vehicles were waiting, so were the people along the way who were running alongside the train -- there.


WATERS: You see the fellow who got...

COUGHLIN: He could right there gain access to the cab and actually board the train, but my estimate of the speed is that it's nowhere near the speed that it was some time ago, where it was I believe about 46 miles an hour. That train is obviously moving at a much slower pace.

WATERS: Right. He got aboard effortlessly.

COUGHLIN: Seemingly.

WATERS: More easily than my utterance of the word of effortlessly. So, the situation is now under control. I guess we stop worrying about this?

COUGHLIN: I think so. It certainly is -- it would be called an incident, not an accident, and that's always the good news.

WATERS: All right. We appreciate you very much helping us out with the story, Susan Coughlin.


WATERS: Susan Coughlin, formerly with the National Transportation Safety Board -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, we have more on the story now. Corry Schiermeyer is with the Federal Railroad Administration. What do you make of how this ended, and what can you tell us about this situation we had today?

CORRY SCHIERMEYER, FEDERAL RAILROAD ADMINISTRATION: Well, we are just all happy that it all ended without any injuries. That's always the number one issue with us, is the safety first. And on these kinds of locomotives, this was this kind of an odd happening, because we do have safety devices in almost all of the locomotives that carry trains, and they have what we call a "dead man pedal," that if it's not activated frequently, then the train thinks that there is no one there, no one is there, and so the brakes are implemented and applied. So this was kind of random that this would happen this way.

ALLEN: So the brakes should have applied then?

SCHIERMEYER: If this locomotive did have that dead man panel -- pedal in the locomotive.

ALLEN: Do you know what happened to the engineer?

SCHIERMEYER: No, we -- everything is preliminary. We are hearing just about the same thing everyone else is hearing. So we're waiting until we get most things confirmed, and we'll have statements out.

ALLEN: Do you know with the CSX person that was able to jump on the train finally -- we saw many people before this trying to run alongside of it.

SCHIERMEYER: I am sorry, I didn't understand.

ALLEN: Do you know, was this a CSX official?

SCHIERMEYER: I am not aware, no.

ALLEN: How long did you know that this train was going down the track unmanned, do you know that?

SCHIERMEYER: I am not sure of that either.

ALLEN: What could have been the worst that would have happened, Ms. Schiermeyer?

SCHIERMEYER: Well, obviously, the worst would have been that there would have been injuries involved, but in this case, like I said, no innocent victims, no one was hurt, and that's -- that we can be thankful of.

ALLEN: And as far as a train that's carrying hazardous material, by law this train can have one person in charge, just one person on board the train?

SCHIERMEYER: All of our trains generally have one engineer -- and like I said, most locomotives, they would have a safety advice, that if something happened to the engineer, or if the locomotive didn't realize the engineer was there -- like I said, if they didn't activate this dead man pedal periodically, the brakes would have automatically been applied. Why that did not happen this in this case, I am not sure of yet.

ALLEN: That's certainly something that investigators will be looking into, we would imagine.


ALLEN: Thank you very much, Corry Schiermeyer on the phone with us, with the Federal Railroad Administration.

And you saw as we were talking, another look at the person that jumped on board this locomotive and got it stopped within seconds. No one hurt, the train is blocking an intersection, and we will continue to follow the story and find out just what happened to the engineer on board this train. We'll take a break. We'll be back.


WATERS: Here it is. Our story of the hour: the runaway train is no longer running away. It has been successfully boarded in Canton, Ohio. We saw emergency workers entering the cab of the train. We see no sign of the engineer, whom -- whom it was reported had a heart attack or some other medical emergency.

We have detective Dennis Alexander of Canton, Ohio with us. Detective, what is going on down there?

DENNIS ALEXANDER, DETECTIVE: Well, sir, CSX was able to bring another engine up behind the train north of Canton and managed to couple on to it and brake and pull it to a stop as it passed through Canton.

WATERS: Oh, that's how the train slowed down?

ALEXANDER: That's how the train slowed down.

WATERS: Pulled it to a stop?


WATERS: Do you know what happened after it was boarded? What is the nature of what's inside of the cab?

ALEXANDER: The immediate reports that I am getting is that there is no one on the train.

WATERS: No one on the train. What do you make of that?

ALEXANDER: Well I don't know what to make at this point in time. That was just reported to me about a minute ago, sir.

WATERS: Well we are kind of stunned by that news. What -- is your next step, I mean, you're a police detective. What -- what -- you make some phone calls or what?

ALEXANDER: Well, CSX is out there. The train -- the CSX police are with the train now and as our units from the sheriff's department and the police department. We will try to make a determination of what happened.

WATERS: Do you know what these hazardous materials were or are?

ALEXANDER: I have not heard a report of what the materials were except that they were flammable.

WATERS: OK. Thanks so much Detective Dennis Alexander, Canton, Ohio. There you have it. The train was stopped by some engines that had been mustered in Canton, Ohio. They latched on to the back of the train and pulled it to a speed at which this man, could eventually board, get inside the cab, and apply the brakes, and very quickly bring the train to a stop.

But now you're hearing Detective Dennis Alexander of the Canton, Ohio police tell us, there's no one on board the train. The initial report was that the sole engineer had had a heart attack or some other medical emergency that prevented them from being able to contact him. Now we hear, there's no one on board the train, so we have a mystery.

We are going to keep looking into this and find out who knows what. If there is no one on the train, it may take a while to find out what's going on. We'll keep you posted. We will take a break. We'll be right back.



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