By the Associated Press
MOBILE, Ala. — In the dark of night, three travelers advanced inexorably toward tragedy.
Accompanied by her parents on her first train trip, 11-year-old Andrea Chancey couldn’t sleep despite the steady rocking of the Amtrak coach. Aboard the same train after missing a flight, Ken Ivory lounged nearby. 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 the deadliest accident in Amtrak history, 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.
Nearly 25 years later, the survivors remember that night vividly: “I smell the oil. I see the fire. I hear the screaming,” said Chancey, now 36.
But many others forgot about the disaster as other tragedies occurred, one after the other, through the years.
Once survivors and victims were plucked out of a river delta so remote it’s called “America’s Amazon,” the National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation. The agency held a public hearing in Mobile, just miles from the bayou, made multiple recommendations to improve safety, and the world moved on.
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.
But for those who witnessed the horror of people drowning in rail cars at Big Bayou Canot, everything comes rushing back with every Amtrak disaster. It’s particularly true for Chancey, whose parents both died in the crash.
Chancey sometimes wonders why she lived when so many others died. Did one of her parents lift her out of the bayou waters before drowning, as news reports at the time said, or did God save her for something special? Or was it simply luck?
Ivory, a Texas oil industry worker who helped save Chancey all those years ago, has a theory.
“She was the chosen one,” said Ivory of Houston.