The bodies of two workers were recovered Friday from the smoldering wreckage of a derailed train, and investigators said the dead crew members had tried to stop the locomotive with emergency brakes as it barreled down a Sierra Nevada slope.
Thursday’s derailment spilled thousands of gallons of fuel near a thick forest and sparked a fire that sent plumes of dense, black smoke into the air for several hours. The eight other crew members aboard the maintenance train suffered minor injuries.
Crew members told authorities that the men who died had been working together to apply the train’s brakes when it ran off the tracks in a ravine about 60 miles east of Sacramento.
The track runs straight and then curves where six of the train’s 10 cars derailed.
Sheriff’s Lt. Chal DeCecco, spokesman for the agencies at the scene, said crew members told investigators the train was passing through a tunnel when they noticed something amiss and tried to slow down about three miles before the crash site.
“If you look at the crash site, it looks like excessive speed was a factor,” DeCecco said.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration were leading the investigation into Thursday’s crash but declined to comment.
DeCecco said it would take until Monday to positively identify the dead workers. One body was recovered from a burned-out train car, while the other was underneath the tangle of fire-charred steel.
“It’s just a tragedy,” said Ken Julian, spokesman for Harsco Track Technologies, the South Carolina-based contractor that employed the victims and all but one of the other crew members. “We’re going to do everything we can to support the families and get to the bottom of the cause.”
Harsco owns the train, which was transporting a piece of maintenance equipment called a grinding machine under a contract with the Union Pacific Railroad. The lone Union Pacific employee aboard the train was the conductor.
‘Rolling mechanic’s shop’
The maintenance train’s purpose is to smooth out worn-down sections of track. It was likened to a “rolling mechanic’s shop,” with a tanker carrying diesel fuel for the locomotive and the other rail cars carrying equipment and drums filled with an assortment of fuels and fluids.
Cleanup crews were clearing the tracks Friday, and the railroad hoped to restore full service on the busy east-west corridor over the weekend. A 600-foot section of track will have to be replaced, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.
Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Department of Fish and Game also were on the scene, trying to keep spilled fuel from running into a tributary of the north fork of the American River.