Two retired Montgomery County firefighters remember the day, 20 years ago, they responded to a fiery collision between an Amtrak passenger train and a commuter train in Silver Spring, Maryland, that led to 11 deaths.
WASHINGTON — It happened 20 years ago, but the memories of a horrific and fatal train wreck in Silver Spring, Maryland remain sharp for the people called to the scene. And what happened that night and the challenges posed by the crash led to national changes in rail-safety standards.
Jim LaMay can pin it down to the minute: it was 5:46 p.m. on a snowy February night in 1996 when he was called from the Montgomery County firehouse where he served as a lieutenant to respond to a train wreck.
A MARC commuter train from West Virginia and an Amtrak train collided on the tracks near the 16th Street Bridge in Silver Spring. Eleven people died in the crash — eight of them were young people in a jobs-training program.
“We laid our lines, and got down there, and holy smokers! That was more than I could fathom,” said LaMay, stopping often to take a deep breath as he recalled the scene.
What LaMay, now retired, was seeing was hard to describe — the two trains had slammed into each other with such force and the resulting fire was so intense, he says it looked as if it were seeing a single train.
“It was the front car of that Amtrak totally involved — totally involved with fire, and that’s what really caught me,” LaMay says.
Taking a deep breath, LaMay says, “You run fatals on the Beltway, and in a house fire you have a fatal once in a while — but to have 11 at once …”
Monte Fitch, another retired Montgomery County firefighter, was assistant chief at the time of the crash. He says LaMay set the tone at the chaotic scene as he organized the rescue and firefighting efforts in some of the worst conditions imaginable.
Fitch says “it was snowing, it was dark — the track bed is actually elevated, so we had to go up to the track bed” or make another approach to the scene that meant scrambling through woods trying to lay hose lines.
To top it off, the entire scene was awash in diesel fuel. It was spewed across the area when the sidesaddle tank on the Amtrak train sliced open in the crash.
The slick and slippery oil-covered snow made standing upright difficult, so a chain of firefighters handed off buckets of sand to each other to create a surface where they could continue the firefighting operations.
The horrific fire in the railcars pointed out glaring deficiencies in railcar safety. Fitch likens it to trying to open a flaming tin can without a can opener.
The windows on the railcars were made of a highly durable, impact resistant plastic. Riders desperate to get out couldn’t open them from the inside, and the firefighters couldn’t open the windows from the outside.
A federal investigation led to changes in the passenger railcar design that riders see today. The crash led passenger cars to require a “quick release” mechanisms for exterior doors and that windows be removable in the event of an emergency. Also, it led to the requirement that emergency exits be marked with “luminescent or retroreflective material.”
Fitch recalls how oddly quiet it was at the scene. The passengers who could get out of the cars had scattered, going to nearby apartment buildings for help. There was only the sound of the engine and the noise of firefighters trying desperately to get the windows of derailed cars open.
“There was no calling for help — because those people were already dead, and the people who were already in the trains were gone,” Fitch says.
Both men say the tragedy has stayed with them, but so has something else: the fact that the crash led to changes that increase the likelihood that passengers could survive a crash. Also with them is the knowledge that the department from which they retired is still responding to all kinds of emergency calls — day and night — determined to keep people safe.
As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.