JACKSONVILLE – Christine Cella, the widow of an Orange Park conductor is suing Amtrak and CSX after a collision between an Amtrak passenger train and an unmanned CSX freight train.
Michael Cella, 36, died when the train he was conducting, Amtrak Train 91, was diverted onto a side track where a CSX freight train sat stopped at 2:35 a.m. on Feb. 4 near Cayce, South Carolina. The collision also killed 54-year-old train engineer Michael Kempf of Savannah, Ga. and injured 116 passengers.
At a news conference held the day after the accident, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that CSX had given up track authority to the upcoming Amtrak Train 91 before the collision.
“[CSX] said we’re through which would indicate that they’ve done everything they need to do,” Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt continued stating that procedure, in this situation, would have dictated that the switch be returned to its original state, which would have allowed Amtrak Train 91 to continue straight ahead on the track as planned. Instead, the switch was pulled and never returned to its original state.
The lawsuit filed by Cella’s attorney, Howard Spier of Miami, cites the negligence of the switch as the cause of the collision.
“On or about February 4, 2018...the train was improperly and unexpectedly diverted into a side track known as the Silica Siding by means of a mainline switch which...was carelessly, negligently and recklessly misaligned and locked in reverse position towards the Silica Siding and away from the mainline track by [CSX employees],” states the 14-page lawsuit filed in the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court on Feb. 8.
CSX’s failure to return the switch to its mainline position is not the only cause of this problem, though, according to Spier.
“In normal conditions, this area is signalized meaning that there are track signals to guide the engineer down the track,” Spier said. “A signal suspension was in place meaning the upcoming area was dark territory.”
Dark territory is an area where train signals are out of operation – usually for maintenance and upgrade purposes – and when this happens, a dispatcher – in this case a CSX dispatcher – should inform the engineer that there is a signal suspension. The engineer is not permitted to proceed until the dispatcher releases their authority on the track segment in question.
In this specific instance, Spier said the CSX dispatcher yielded their authority to Amtrak Train 91, which means the track switch had been realigned to its normal position – not diverted to the side track – and the train should be able to proceed forward. Unfortunately, the track switch had not been realigned to its normal position, despite CSX giving up track authority.
Sumwalt said that they are not attributing blame to CSX or to anyone at this time as investigations are still taking place but he did confirm that the switch was left in position to direct the train to the Selica Siding side station when it no longer should have been.
The lawsuit solely involves Cella’s family on behalf of Christine Cella’s self, the estate of her husband and their two children, Elena and Logan Cella. The case is an action for damages in excess of a minimum $15,000 – the required amount for the Circuit Court to accept the case – or greater. However, Spier said, he and the Cellas are concerned far less about money than they are answers about what happened leading up to Michael Cella’s death.
“Our focus is on the who, what, when, where and how,” Spier said. “The lawsuit is geared up to discover what happened here, to provide the Cella family with knowledge that they so desperately want to know to understand how this terrible and tragic accident occurred that resulted in the loss of a family member.”