MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — In the dark of night, three travelers advanced toward tragedy.
Accompanied by her parents on her first train trip, 11-year-old Andrea Chancey couldn’t sleep on the Amtrak coach. Ken Ivory lounged nearby; he was only aboard the train because he had missed a flight. Miles away, Willie C. Odom steered a towboat as it pushed barges up a river that was getting foggier by the mile.
A bump. A whoosh. A ball of fire.
Suddenly, those three and more than 200 other people were caught up in what remains Amtrak’s deadliest accident, the derailment of the Los Angeles-to-Miami Sunset Limited in a south Alabama bayou in 1993. Forty-seven people died and more than 100 others were hurt.
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Nearly twenty-five years later, the survivors remember that night vividly: “I smell the oil. I see the fire. I hear the screaming,” said Chancey, now 36, told The Associated Press in her first interview.
But others forgot the disaster as other tragedies occurred. The same will no doubt happen in the aftermath of a recent string of three Amtrak accidents that killed a total of six people and injured about 170 others in Washington, Virginia and South Carolina.
Yet for those who witnessed the horror of people drowning in rail cars at Big Bayou Canot, everything comes rushing back with every Amtrak disaster.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Geary L. Chancey, a pilot and Vietnam veteran, and wife Mary Jane Chancey, a schoolteacher, adopted Andrea when she was just weeks old. Born with severe cerebral palsy, their girl would need assistance the rest of her life.
The family was living in Orange Park, Florida, in 1993 when they boarded the Sunset Limited to visit relatives in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Their visit done, the Chanceys board the eastbound Sunset Limited toward home at Biloxi, Mississippi, the night of Sept. 21, 1993. The train was running about 30 minutes late.
Around the same time, Willie Odom was piloting the towboat Mauvilla as it pushed six barges up the winding Mobile River.
With the landscape shrouded in fog, Odom unknowingly turned off the river into Big Bayou Canot, a non-navigable waterway that is crossed by an unlit railroad bridge. As Odom tried to find a tree to tie up with until the fog lifted, records show, a barge struck a bridge support. The collision bent the rail tracks more than one yard out of line just eight minutes before the Amtrak train arrived.
Aboard the Sunset Limited, Andrea Chancey was trying to sleep.
Traveling at 72 mph (116 kph), the lead locomotive reached the bridge and jumped the track where the rails were bent by the barge collision. The 240-ton engine flew across the bayou, embedding in about 46 feet of mud on the opposite bank, followed by other cars.
Chancey remembers tumbling as her double-decker coach sailed into the bayou.
Her mother “pushed me and I fell and I saw my dad fall and when the water came in it was like, ‘Wow,” she said. “And everything went black.”
Chancey doesn’t recall seeing either of her parents again, possibly because of water rushing into the car in the inky darkness — the only light came from burning diesel fuel. But she does remember a few people including Ivory, who helped save her.
Ivory, an oil industry contractor from Houston, said he was getting people out when someone thrust a girl above the water that was filling the coach.
“Whoever it was was being consumed by the water at that time,” he recalled. “I didn’t ever get to see who handed her up, but I assumed it was her parents.”
Andrea was hospitalized with injuries that included oil inhalation. It was left to relatives to tell her that her parents had died.
The “miracle child,” as the media called her, went to live with relatives until she was 18. She wound up back on the Mississippi coast in Biloxi, where she lives today in an apartment with assistance from a dog and aides. She sometimes wonders why she survived.
Ivory also wonders why he survived, and why he couldn’t save more people. For a while, the smell of diesel fuel took him back to the scene of the crash.
Odom, the towboat pilot, was named as a defendant in more than 90 lawsuits after the crash but never faced criminal charges. He told investigators he felt a “bump” as he was pushing the barges that night but didn’t realize what had happened until he heard a “whoosh” and saw the glow of fire through the fog. The Mauvilla crew then helped pull people from the water.
Odom has dealt for more than two decades with the guilt and pain of what happened, said brother Morsco Odom — though over time, his anguish has eased a bit.
Chancey worries about Odom. She doesn’t blame him for the loss of her parents.
The bayou bridge should have been in better shape, she said, and Amtrak has had too many accidents since. Willie Odom has suffered enough, Chancey said, particularly considering he helped save her and 16 others after the crash, using the same towboat that hit the bridge.
Ivory, too, holds nothing against Odom. But ever since the crash, Ivory said, he has always checked on airline flights well in advance.
“I haven’t taken another train since then,” said Ivory.