Wednesday, Sept. 22  will be long remembered as the day the train Sunset Limited derailed from a bridge over a remote bayou outside of Mobile, Ala. In the early morning darkness many lives were saved from the dark waters, making heroes of the calm and clear-thinking.
These heroes are featured in newspapers as modest people who say they just did what any other person would do. Those they saved are thankful for their hero’s calm voice and confidence. The heroes get the attention and thanks they rightfully deserve. Then there are those that retrieved the 47 that didn’t survive. Does the gruesome task of finding the dead make someone a hero?
At 7:30 a.m., about four hours after the disaster, 12 Marines of 3d Force Reconnaissance Company, Marine Reserve Force, Mobile, Ala. came into sight of the wreck. It took 40 minutes by Zodiac raft to navigate the watery maze of the bayou to the remote location/
The scene was like the set of an action film, but there were no cameras. Three quarters of the rail bridge was missing. A train car hung precariously over the edge of what remained. The rest of the train was scattered like toys in the water. The first engine car had apparently gone airborne once it derailed, because it had plowed three quarters deep into the mud on shore, sticking almost straight up and down. The wreckage was still smoking from the fire that had consumed the first three cars.
There was a lot of confusion as rescue workers tried to sort out the mess. But the scene was quiet. Only the sound of small boat motors and people talking broke the natural silence of the bayou.
“It was an eerie calm,” reflected Maj. Bill Taggart, company Inspector-Instructor. “A quiet chaos.”
The Marines, a mix of regular and reserve, decided to help by searching and clearing a half-submerged passenger car. Taggart took a couple of Marines over to the cars still on tracks first to get their layout.
By 11 a.m. the Marines were organized into two teams, suited up; briefed on what they were going to do and ready to go.
Taggart and Sgt. Troy Mitchell were the first divers to enter the two-story car. The recon Marines broke a window and entered the top floor first.
“There was diesel fuel and debris in the water which reduced visibility to zero,” said Taggart. “Not even flashlights could penetrate it.” The entire search had to be done by feel and the two divers had to hold on to each other so as not to lose each other.
“There was a time when we put our face masks right against each other with the flashlights shining directly on us trying to communicate,” said Mitchell. “I would get frustrated and start trying to talk, but of course I can’t talk underwater.”
To search the top floor, Taggart wrapped his legs around Mitchell to free his hands to search above while Mitchell searched below. After 20 minutes, they didn’t find any victims.
“We did the entire search by feel,” said Taggart. “We had to guess where we were while trying to remember where we’ve been.”
“The diesel fuel burning my skin was the hardest part for me,” said Mitchell.
The divers continued the search on the bottom floor. They went down the stairs, which were very steep, narrow and slippery. Progress was made even more difficult because the train car was pointed down at an angle and canted to the side. There was very little room to move in the cramped quarters, and the recon divers could not turn around because their air tanks were too large.
“Anytime a suitcase or other luggage was in the way, we had to pick it up and back out with it all the way up the stairs,” said Mitchell.
Once they reached the bottom, they knew from having looked at a train car previously that the first class area was to the right and the bathrooms were to the left. They chose to go right first.
They came to a door that was about six inches open, but stuck in that position. Mitchell used his diving knife to pry the rubber seal off the door’s window and punched it in. They immediately found three bodies just inside. These people had apparently tried to get out through the door, but, as it was later discovered, luggage had blocked it.
They pulled the bodies out and had to back up the stairs with one body at a time, swim through the upstairs and hand the body out.
Once those three were removed, Mitchell went into the compartment. The window was just large enough for him to swim through with his dive gear. Inside were four more bodies. Mitchell passed them out to Taggart, and Taggart took them to the surface.
“To get the last guy out, I had to peel his fingers off a pipe he was holding on to,” said Mitchell.
The divers searched the bathroom area next. While there, they found themselves in an air pocket where they could finally talk to each other. The bathroom doors were jammed part way open, but not enough for the recon Marines to get in with their gear on.
“The water was up to my neck,” said Mitchell. “I took off my tanks and squeezed through the door. I didn’t like being without the tanks, because I didn’t know what was behind that door and those tanks were my air.” Nothing was found.
Once it was determined there was no one left in the car, the Marines returned to their boat.
While the dive teams were searching the wreckage other Marines arrived throughout the day and were set to work providing transportation for the authorities investigating the crash, such as FBI Special Agent Richard Macon.
Macon was the person who called the Marines to action. He was in his office when he received a call at 3:30 a.m. about the wreck. He called the Coast Guard and the police. He found out there were no roads anywhere near the site and divers were needed, so he called Taggart at home at 4:30 a.m. to request his unit’s help.
The Marines already had their gear ready for a training exercise that day. They just changed their original plan from training to real-life work.
The crash was reportedly caused by some barges that had hit the bridge and damaged the tracks. “We located the barges only because the Marines had the boats to look for them,” said Macon. “The barges were held as evidence.”
The Marines returned the next day at 6:45 a.m. As they were approaching the site, the body of a young girl surfaced nearby. The Marines pulled her out of the water, covered her with a sheet and turned her over to police.
“There’s not much I can say about recovering bodies,” said SSgt. Juan Martinez, himself a father of a three and a half-year-old girl. “It does kind of bother you. But the little girl really topped it off.”
The Marines’ next task was to stand watch as cranes lifted a completely submerged train car from the water. They were to grab anything that fell out.
Once the car was safely set on a barge, the recon Marines went through it, digging in the thick mud and piles of luggage for any remaining dead. None were found.
The rest of the day was spent waiting and providing transportation for authorities.
The third day was the final day the Marines assisted in recovery efforts. Their first task was to send a dive team to mark with buoys underwater obstacles that might endanger passing boats.
The water was still dark, which made this otherwise easy task hard. Martinez and Mitchell were the divers. “I always had the weird feeling that something was going to poke me in the face or that I was going to get stuck,” said Martinez. “It was a tangled mess; like a pretzel of steel, wood and concrete.”
After marking the obstacles, the Marines were put on stand-by as the first engine car was raised from the mud embankment. The last three missing people were believed to be the engineers in that car. The Marines were to watch for and recover anything that fell out as the car was maneuvered by crane to a waiting barge.
The car was set on its side because the bottom had been sheared off in the wreck. Once it was securely on the barge, the Marines moved in to plan for their final operation: helping recover the final missing three.
The car was packed with mud and firemen used hoses to spray most of it out until the bodies were seen.
All three were found together. The Marines then began the task of freeing them from the wreckage. Taggart asked for tools and suggested to the fire chief ways to get them out. The fire chief made it clear, though, that Taggart didn’t need to ask.
“We work for you now,” the fire chief said. It took several hours under the hot sun to complete the job. The Marines were tired and thirsty, but satisfied they were done. As they were leaving at the end of the long day, they were thanked by priests, firemen and the Coast Guard. As one Coast Guardsman said, “I don’t envy you your job.”
The Marines packed their gear and headed home. There was no fanfare or celebration. It was like they had just finished the training they were originally scheduled for. There was no ‘hero’s welcome.’ The public hardly even knew that Marines were there. According to Mitchell, he didn’t really feel like a hero. “It’s not like we saved any lives. We just recovered the dead,” he said.