On the Gulf Coast, life begins and ends at the water. It ribbons the land and saturates the air, providing livelihood, comfort and reflection.
“You can’t go anywhere here without hitting water,” John Richardson said. More than half of the U.S. Navy veteran’s 84 years have been spent in the Mobile County Sheriff’s Flotilla.
The water is personal for him. In hours spent fishing with his son, and in time with his own father.
“I used to work on a tug with my dad,” Richardson said. “Coming out of New Orleans, you could see the trains on the coast, just a black streak going by, they were so fast.”
In June 1993, Richardson had been in the flotilla for 21 years, the last four as its captain. He led it through a first responders’ disaster drill where a barge simulated a downed plane in Mobile Bay.
“We brought in pilots from Delta, three stewardesses and put 150 people from the Navy base in the water,” flotilla member Rick Drews said. Months later, the exercise proved vital.
Retired in January 2018, Steve Huffman was “relatively new” to his Mobile Fire-Rescue spokesman role then. Near Labor Day 1993, he and the Mobile Police Department spokesman traveled to a conference where a speaker briefed public information officers about disasters, major casualties and dealing with media.
“Coming back we made the mistake of saying, ‘We don’t have to worry about stuff like that. That’s never going to happen to us,’” Huffman said.
Despite lingering summer heat, Mobile was abuzz with anticipation. Its brand-new convention center would premiere with a Sept. 23 gala celebration. A special section in the Sunday, Sept. 19, Press-Register highlighted the waterfront showplace.
Carole and George Simpson finished their summer in style. They left Gulf Breeze, Florida, on Amtrak to see the nation. The train took them through Chicago, then they dropped off their grandson near Seattle and headed south to Los Angeles, where they climbed aboard the luxurious Sunset Limited and rode to San Antonio.
When they rolled into New Orleans, the Simpsons declined a sleeping berth, since they planned to disembark in Pensacola before sunrise.
Mid-September was hot, with temperatures on Sept. 20 and 21 nearly 10 degrees above normal. Then a cold front brought dry air. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta’s warm water evaporated, then quickly condensed in the cooler night air.
“It was so foggy you couldn’t see you and I sitting here,” Sheriff’s Flotilla member Mike Nichols said as he motioned across a small table. “Terrible fog.”
In the late afternoon of Sept. 21, Captain Andrew Stabler’s towboat MV Mauvilla launched to collect six barges of coal, metal, wood and cement. They would push the 1,400 tons northward, 225 miles to Tuscaloosa like many previous loads.
“It was a normal day, routine,” Stabler later told media.
A friend drove 38-year-old Melanie Procaccini from Fort Lauderdale to coastal Mississippi. The cosmetologist assumed custody of her troubled sister’s 3-year-old son, Robert.
Once there, a disagreement with her driver left Procaccini stranded with just $47. Another girlfriend volunteered a loan for Procaccini’s return. Flights were expensive, a bus ride too lengthy with a child in tow. Amtrak would work if they could hustle.
“The train was running late, like it was waiting for me. I was the last one to board,” Procaccini said.
The Sunset Limited arrived in New Orleans at 10 p.m. and refilled its three locomotives with 5,800 gallons of diesel fuel. It was delayed while a toilet and air conditioner were repaired.
The conductor found seats for Procaccini and Robert on the upper level of a double-decker car. An older couple across the aisle, Bob and Elizabeth Watts, warmed to Procaccini’s nephew. When the child needed to visit the bathroom, Bob set down his paperback and took Robert’s little hand to escort him.
Watts’ book title caught the dim light: “A Clear and Present Danger.”
Towboat crews work “six on/six off” to prevent fatigue. At 11:30 p.m., Stabler left the Mauvilla’s wheelhouse and retired to his cabin. He watched television, then turned off his light.
Pilot Willie Odom manned the helm. From previous experience, Stabler described Odom as “a good pilot.”
Visibility was terrible — a “shutout fog,” they called it on the river.
Simultaneously, the Sunset Limited finally left New Orleans, more than a half-hour behind schedule.
At 2:15 a.m., Odom radioed another pilot, who said the fog was thickening. Protocol meant tying off to a sturdy tree on the riverside to wait out the fog. Odom slowed his towboat to a crawl and scoured the banks for a suitable spot.
At 2:30 a.m., the Sunset Limited arrived in Mobile. It paused to await an oncoming freight train as it crossed the lonesome rail line and bridges in the delta.
The Simpsons slept in their seats.
“We rode 7,000 miles and we were less than 100 miles from home,” Carole Simpson said.
Odom was lost. Unable to see even the end of his barges, he passed Twelve Mile Island and mistakenly slipped into Big Bayou Canot, an unnavigable side channel. Glancing at the radar — a technology he was never properly trained to navigate by — Odom thought he saw another barge ahead.
“In the fog, if you got radar it doesn’t tell you if you’re in the right part of the water. When he realized it, it was too late,” Richardson said.
The Sunset Limited left Mobile bound for the delta, determined to make up lost time. The train quickly approached 70 mph.
Procaccini said a premonition of imminent danger woke her on the rocking train. She gathered little Robert and adjusted their blankets and pillows for protection.
At 2:45 a.m., a jolt woke Stabler. He darted to the wheelhouse and found Odom confused. Two barges were loose, so the captain radioed the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).
In the fog, the Mauvilla’s barges struck an older train bridge over the bayou, a trestle with no navigation lights. Originally designed as a swing bridge, it wasn’t converted to one but the swinging portion was never properly secured, held in place only by friction.
When the barges bumped the bridge piling, the tracks moved more than three feet out of alignment. The rails bent but never broke, never cut the circuit running to the sensors and signal lights down the line.
At 2:51 a.m., the Sunset Limited was traveling 72 mph and passed a green light signaling “all clear.” It was a mile and a half from Bayou Canot.
The Mauvilla gathered its loose barges. Odom said he heard “a whoosh” at the bridge.
Photo | NTSB
At 2:53 a.m., the lead locomotive launched from the tracks. Its three-person crew died immediately as the force buried the locomotive more than halfway into Bayou Canot’s muddy bank. Two other locomotives, a baggage car, the crew car and two passenger cars followed as the far half of the bridge came apart. The nearly full fuel tanks ruptured and exploded on impact.
The Simpsons flew from their seats. George landed awkwardly and injured his shoulder.
“The first thing I felt was a lot of shuddering and then falling,” Carole said.
As they came to, they became aware of fire. The cars in front and even the river looked ablaze.
“My grandson kept reading how to take the window out — he was starting to read — so my husband knew how to do it. There was a young man on our car named Mike [Dopheide], he came and helped take the window out and helped people get out into the water,” Carole said.
The lower compartment flooded. The adopted parents of an 11-year old with cerebral palsy pushed her to safety as they drowned.
“She just swam up from downstairs. The sad thing is the lower level is the handicapped level, so those people were underwater and didn’t survive,” Carole said. “I just remember she couldn’t walk. She was the very first person that went out the window.”
Badly injured, George Simpson exited early. They paddled through the swampy terror, then struggled to hold on to a nearby car as eyes and throats stung with fumes and smoke.
Atop the remaining bridge, employees calmed passengers and moved them rearward. Supervisor John Turk called an emergency operator and mistakenly said they were on the Mobile River.
“We got cars burning; they’re over the bridges. There are people in the water. We’re trying to help them. We need all kind of help. Ma’am, I have to go and assist these people,” Turk’s voice shook with adrenaline and urgency.
Assistant Conductor Gary Farmer ran forward, but at the front end of the car there was nowhere to go. Beyond the doorway, he saw out over the river and the night’s horror.
“It looked like a scene out of ‘Dante’s Inferno,’” Farmer said.
The passenger car directly below him was sinking. High tide was near in the 25-foot-deep bayou. Farmer jumped.
“The closer I got, the quicker it sank,” he sighed. “About the time I was maybe 20 feet from it, it went totally underwater.” Farmer paused and looked down in bitter resignation.
Nearly 700 feet away, the Mauvilla radioed the Coast Guard.
“There’s a hell of fire up here in the middle of the river,” Stabler barked. “There ain’t supposed to be no fire up here and like I say, I don’t know exactly where we at, it’s so foggy I can’t tell. Can’t tell by looking on the radar, so there’s something bad wrong up here.”
Like the Simpsons, Procaccini smashed into the seat across from her. But while the Simpsons’ car rested partially submerged on a bridge piling, Procaccini’s car went into the bayou and filled with water.
“I wound up kicking the window out, saving Mr. and Mrs. Watts, a Mexican man who couldn’t swim, two girls from England, me and Robert. He’s the only kid on the train who survived,” Procaccini said.
The child and Elizabeth Watts left first. The Brits were “hysterical.” The Mexican man repeated, “Lord, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.” Bob Watts was overwhelmed and froze.
“All of the grass, the water, the pressure, everything’s coming in now, full speed. He had the scaredest look on his face, I’ll never forget,” Procaccini said.
Adrenaline surged as Procaccini pushed him through the window. She was last.
“I got my one last, deep breath and had to pull myself through the window with all the grass, water, muck, mud and all,” Procaccini said.
Outside, she looked around in disbelief.
“I’m going, ‘this only happens in the movies; am I really here?’” she recalled.
They grabbed floating railroad ties, then saw a light shining atop the bridge. A conductor guided them to a bank more than 200 feet away where a human chain pulled them up. On dry land, Procaccini pocketed rocks from the train tracks as souvenirs.
“I didn’t even break a nail,” she quipped to those around her.
In the cars behind them, passengers Dopheide and Ken Ivory led evacuations. Not all made it.
“You could hear screaming, the gurgling of people drowning. It was just chaos,” Ivory told a camera crew.
“Train employees were running up and down on top of the crew car yelling for one crew member who had been asleep,” Carole Simpson said. “They kept calling, yelling ‘Q! Q!’”
The man they sought was 44-year-old Ronald Quaintance of Jackson, Mississippi. Ivory was unable to free him. Finally, Quaintance told Ivory to tell his wife and kids he loved them and succumbed.
With the Mauvilla’s loose barges secured against a bank, it headed toward the fire. One deckhand took an aluminum skiff into the wreck scene, grabbing four or five people at a time. They would rescue 17.
After Stabler’s call, the Coast Guard at Dauphin Island launched a three-man crew in an inflatable reconnaissance boat at 3:20 a.m.
The emergency operator contacted authorities but the precise location was hard to determine. The uptick in radio traffic alerted a pair of Scott Paper tugboat employees, who grabbed a small boat, went to the scene and pulled 20 from the water.
“The dispatcher didn’t know where they were, didn’t know who to dispatch, didn’t know whether to call Chickasaw, Prichard, Saraland, Mobile. They spent a lot of time trying to figure out who to send where. It didn’t matter whose it was, it was going to take all of us to handle it,” Drews said.
Flotilla member John Lamb lived in Chickasaw, so he was close. After a phone call, he raced to the Saraland Police Department. He and another volunteer climbed into a Saraland police officer’s boat.
“You could see the glow in the fog, then flames above the trees,” Lamb said.
He said they retrieved a few people from the water before being ordered to scramble up the bank’s riprap and clear passengers from the cars on top.
“I remember one lady, she couldn’t get up the angle into the next car, so Terrell [Washington] and I got on both sides and she put her arms around our shoulders and we walked her out of the rocks between the rails,” Lamb said.
Drews’ wee-hours phone call sent him to Fowl River Marina to pilot the 42-foot MV Frederic to the site. Alone on board, a mishap would have been costly.
“The fog was so bad you couldn’t see the bow of the boat. How I got from Fowl River to Bayou Canot without hitting a crab trap or a log or something else I’ll never know. It was God’s gift and guidance,” Drews said of the hour-plus journey.
He said the Ramona Doyle, a World War II minesweeper converted to a fireboat, was trying to smother flames with what kept her afloat. There was no road access, only water, rail and boat.
The Simpsons were in the water a half-hour before a skiff retrieved them. They transferred to a larger vessel.
“On the larger boat, [George] started having chest pains. Another passenger had nitroglycerin and she gave it to him,” Carole Simpson said. “That boat took us to a barge. From that barge, we walked across to a second barge and that’s where the helicopter landed.”
Limited accessibility meant emergency forces were improvised.
“We went to Kimberly Clark and set up triage there. The railroad brought in a train car and took first responders down to the site,” Huffman said.
The helicopter took the Simpsons to the makeshift triage. At a hospital, it was revealed George had had a minor heart attack. Carole had plentiful bruises and a broken toe.
“Either you survived or you didn’t. There was little in between,” Huffman said.
When the rescue train reached the site, Procaccini was leery of climbing aboard. She made a fireman promise to ride beside her. Once the shock and adrenaline subsided, she realized her shoulder was severely injured and her arms were burned from fuel.
John Richardson’s beeper told him about the emergency. He was still doing shift work at National Gypsum, which delayed his arrival. A larger obstacle wreaked havoc when the communications system was its own disaster.
“There was so much turmoil on the radio, the city radio, the county radio, you couldn’t get through for nothing,” Richardson said.
Salvage operations began with daylight. It would take more manpower.
“We had about six divers on the scene, but there were divers from Louisiana and all kind of places,” Richardson said.
Nichols thought there were roughly 20 divers.
“There were divers from the Marine Corps, the Alabama Department of Transportation and some search and rescue teams that came in to dive cars,” Huffman said.
Drews said Coast Guard Chief McClain was onsite commander; Drews was appointed onsite dive commander.
The current was so powerful and exhausting, divers were tethered then relieved after 30 minutes. Delta water is notably silt filled and muddy.
“You couldn’t see the light right in front of your face,” Nichols recalled.
Richardson recalled divers using fluorescent gloves. Corpse discovery was manual and painstaking.
“You’d get down there and feel until you bumped into something,” Drews said.
“It was a tough thing for everybody to have to go through. It’s nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Huffman said.
Those on air hoses would explore, then pass bodies from rail cars to flotilla divers on tanks. The remains were put on boats and covered — authorities resorted to sheets when they ran out of body bags — then transferred to a barge. Once identified, the barge took them to the Port of Chickasaw before transporting them to a specially established morgue.
Amtrak’s ticketing policies made for lack of a complete manifest. Employees rode for free and weren’t ticketed. Small children and babies weren’t ticketed either.
At one point, the body of 3-year-old Jennifer Camarena bobbed to the surface. It shook some personnel, including the flotilla chaplain.
“He wouldn’t retrieve her,” Richardson said. “Cecil Byrd had to go do it.”
The youngest victim was 3-month-old Sean Scott Galvan, who died with his 21-year-old mother, Sheila.
“Some were recovered in their seats, some in restrooms, some on floors,” Nichols said.
The helicopters used the night of the wreck were hampered when media-rented helicopters filled the daytime sky. Air traffic was shut down.
The Coast Guard helped secure the site from onlookers. “USCG put a safety ring around both ends, worked both ends of Bayou Canot to keep sightseers out,” Drews recalled.
“There were 75 satellite trucks set up, over 300 reporters, photographers, support and what have you. It was an international story. We had a news crew from Japan. We were getting calls from Canada, England, South America, all over the world,” Huffman said. Media were staged at the Port of Chickasaw.
Communication among official workers disintegrated. Their new, ballyhooed 800 MHz radio system failed. Improperly programmed, the dispatcher constantly interrupted or halted all communication. Cellphones, still uncommon, saved the day.
“Several companies were handing out boxes of 10 [phones] at a time. On the Frederic, I had my bag phone, an old cellphone sitting on the dash of the boat,” Drews said.
Four lawyers in business attire appeared at the Chickasaw facility. They claimed the Alabama Bar Association sent to them “to protect victims’ rights.” It soured an already dour mood.
Massive cranes arrived from New Orleans, lifted the cars and 130-plus-ton locomotives, then placed them on barges.
“When I went through them to check them and make sure there wasn’t nothing we missed, there were purses and magazines still laying on those seats,” Nichols said. “How they stayed there through the impact and current, I’ll never know.”
The cars were moved to the west bank of the river, under the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge. They remained there for weeks.
Nichols said CSX had the bridge repaired and ready in less than 48 hours.
All told, 47 of the 220 aboard died. Two died from fire, 42 drowned. Three in the locomotive were listed as asphyxiated their lungs filled with mud.
A quarter-century later, it remains Amtrak’s deadliest accident.
On Capitol Hill, then President Bill Clinton asked an assembly to offer silent prayers for the victims.
Like the other survivors, Carole Simpson was put up at the Adams Mark Riverview Hotel while George spent several nights in a hospital. Pensacola friends came to visit before the Simpsons returned home.
“In about two weeks, UPS delivered our luggage. It was absolutely soaking wet, water pouring out of it. Nothing could be salvaged,” Carole said.
George’s prized possession disappeared. “My husband had his original Social Security card. It is in the bottom of the bayou still.”
Simpson heard six in her car died.
Everyone in Procaccini’s car died except the nine she said left with her. At the Adams Mark, she called her sister.
“She thought I was dead,” Procaccini said. “She was so happy she cried.”
Procaccini’s boyfriend drove up from Fort Lauderdale. The Red Cross gave her clothes and $100 to get home.
“The volunteers were terrific. There were so many waiting for us when we got off that train,” Procaccini said. “They took care of us like we were their own.”
That’s the lasting memory for Richardson.
“The people from the community and surrounding states that showed up, providing clothes and food, places to stay downtown. Thousands were involved that showed up to work. You never saw, but heard about it,” Richardson said.
Mobile’s convention center opened as planned on Sept. 23 as international eyes were trained on the wetlands nine miles north of the swanky party.
Adams Mark management eventually hired security for the inside of the hotel, an answer to complaints about television crews. Cameras aggressively hounded survivors as they left an area reserved for clothing, food, comfort and communication, then attempted to follow them to their rooms.
“Hordes of journalists would surround them like vultures,” a manager told the Press-Register. “It was awful … I really feel for them.”
National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) investigators arrived quickly and zeroed in on the Mauvilla’s barges. The event recorder on the lead engine was destroyed, but one from another locomotive was salvaged.
Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co. owned the Mauvilla. Their officials were taciturn with NTSB. They moved the Mauvilla crew out of town, out of reach.
Finally, Warrior & Gulf agreed to allow NTSB to examine the Mauvilla in drydock. The final NTSB report was listed in September 1994.
They determined Odom was properly licensed but insufficiently trained for the situation. The natural conditions, the unlit and unsecured swing bridge and the unbroken safety circuit all added to tragic convergence. He wasn’t found criminally liable, but was a named defendant in more than 90 civil suits.
Odom never recovered emotionally. Family members described him as a shattered man in the decades that followed.
Andrew Stabler remained in maritime trade, but was haunted by the accident until his death in 2013.
The Coast Guard awarded Michael Dopheide and Ken Ivory a Gold Lifesaving Medal.
Tugboat pilot licensing changed and training now has more steps.
Amtrak added glow-in-the-dark handles to emergency exits. Emergency packets for every seat contain unusually powerful luminescent glow sticks.
Flotilla members said communication issues were solved afterward. Dive procedures were tweaked.
“We got more equipment. If something needs repairing then we get it new. Our training is better,” Richardson said. Still active, he no longer captains the flotilla.
Huffman said lessons learned on the bayou helped with an enormous fog-related traffic pileup on the interstate highway over Mobile Bay the next year. He’s spent time addressing PIOs in other jurisdictions and states.
“We stayed in touch with a lot of people from the train for a few years. We went to the NTSB hearing in Mobile as well,” Carole Simpson said. “We weren’t really bitter at Willie Odom. It was an accident.”
When a monument was erected at the site, the Coast Guard returned survivors for the ceremony.
“There were quite a few of us; I don’t know how many. It was very unnerving to see how wooded and desolate the place we had the accident was,” Simpson said.
Though she overcame the psychological trauma, her husband didn’t.
“George became very reclusive. Maybe because I was younger — it was a second marriage for us, so my grandchildren were young. I was more involved with family and I handled it much better than he did. He pretty much didn’t go out after that,” she said.
George passed away in 2001. Carole still lives in Gulf Breeze.
Procaccini couldn’t sleep in the dark. For two years, she had nightmares.
“When I sit at a railroad track and a train comes, there’s some flashbacks,” Procaccini said. “What bothered me most was I couldn’t save enough people. Why only nine?”
What does her nephew, Robert, recall?
“He remembers the swimming. That’s all.”
Periodically, the fortunate return. Huffman rode along when a survivor from England took a boat to the bayou recently.
“She laid a wreath on the concrete footing of the bridge, and ironically a train came through while we were there,” Huffman said. “It was very emotional for her, needless to say.”
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