Rescue workers search the cars of a derailed Amtrak train

Rescue workers search the cars of an Amtrak train that derailed in Montgomery County between Garrett Park and Kensington. The crash injured 101, at least six seriously. (Sun photo by John Makely / July 29, 2002)

KENSINGTON - An Amtrak passenger train derailed in Montgomery County yesterday afternoon, injuring 101 people - at least six seriously - just 15 minutes before it was to reach its destination in Washington.

The eastbound Capitol Limited was carrying 164 passengers and 12 crew members from Chicago when the accident occurred at 1:55 p.m. along a tree-lined stretch of track.

Rail officials and the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators would be looking closely at whether the day's sustained temperatures in the mid-90s might have caused the rails to weaken. In consistently hot weather, rail crews keep watch for slight distortions that can occur in the steel tracks.

"We're looking at that, as well as a lot of other factors," said NTSB Vice Chairwoman Carol Carmody. She said investigators are expected to retrieve information from the train's data recorders today.

Passers-by felt the ground shake and saw plumes of dirt shoot into the air before they scrambled down slopes to help passengers out. Six cars in the two-engine, 13-car train tipped over after derailing.

The six passengers most seriously hurt were trapped inside the wreckage for about an hour. They were listed in fair or serious condition in hospitals last night.

The CSX-owned tracks had been visually inspected and OK'd by rail crews Sunday afternoon. And 40 minutes before the accident, a 91-car freight train carrying 9,100 tons of cargo passed over the tracks without any trouble, said CSX spokesman Dan Murphy.

"We don't know of any recent problem with that track," he said.

The Capitol Limited had left Chicago at 7 p.m. Sunday and was due at Union Station about 25 minutes behind its 1:45 p.m. scheduled arrival time. It was believed to be traveling 60 mph, the posted speed limit, sources said.

The train derailed in a ravine between small stations at Garrett Park, a suburban community of Victorian homes, and Kensington, known locally for its many antique stores.

The cars had rounded a curve in a wooded area and were headed into a straightaway when they derailed and slid down an embankment. Although some cars leaned at odd angles after the derailment, those at the front of the train remained upright - fortunately, because the track there is perched on an even-more-precarious embankment.

What surprised a half-dozen mechanics at a nearby auto repair shop was that they never heard the screech of brakes.

"I saw the tops of the trees going berserk, like something was hitting them. It was like a storm," said Hal Wheeler, manager of Mitch Carr's Auto Service, across the street from the tracks.

"We said, 'Man, that train is moving too fast,' " said Carr, the shop's owner.

The two then heard only silence and thought the train had continued on its way, until someone from the tracks called for help.

Wheeler, 41, of Silver Spring said he ran to a car that was tipped on its side on muddy, uneven ground and helped pull out shaken passengers. He and a fellow employee used a small knife to cut the rubber molding around one of the windows.

"There was a son who was already out, and he didn't know where his mother and sister were. The two came out in sequence, and they were all crying and hugging," Wheeler said. He and others at the scene said it was a miracle more people weren't seriously injured.

"It was an incredible sight," said Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella. "It was like one of my kids' train sets that goes over the side of the track, and then someone hits it with a hammer.

"You think nobody could get out of that," she said.