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BOARD ENDS PROBE BUT CAN’T DECIDE WHOM TO BLAME

SHARE BOARD ENDS PROBE BUT CAN’T DECIDE WHOM TO BLAME

Federal safety officials ended a nine-month investigation divided over how to assess blame for Amtrak's deadliest accident - last year's derailment in Alabama that killed 47 people.

The National Transportation Safety Board, after a daylong hearing Tuesday, agreed on the circumstances that led to the train plunging off a railroad bridge and into a bayou on Sept. 22, 1993.A tugboat pilot lost in the fog pushed a barge into a railroad bridge over the Big Bayou Canot, knocking the tracks 38 inches out of line just minutes before the train arrived, the board unanimously concluded.

But the board could not agree on assessing blame among the pilot, his employer, the railroad companies that owned the bridge and federal agencies.

If the pilot, Willie C. Odom, had known how to use the radar on his tugboat, the board said, he wouldn't have made the wrong turn that took him out of the Mobile River and into the Big Bayou Canot.

The board blamed the owner of the towboat, the Warrior and Gulf Navigation Co., for failing to ensure that Odom was competent to use the radar.

And it said the Coast Guard shares some culpability because it failed "to establish higher standards for inland towing vessel operator licensing."

Odom failed the Coast Guard licensing test eight times before getting his tugboat operator license. He surrendered that license in March rather than face a Coast Guard hearing.

The board split 2-2 in determining how much blame to assign federal authorities and the railroad owners of the bridge for failing to take preventive action after a 1979 incident in which a barge hit the bridge in almost the same spot.

"The only corrective action that triggered was to repair the bridge, not to put into place or even question any broader preventive measures," said board member John K. Lauber, who argued that the failure to take corrective action should be listed as a direct cause.

But board Chairman Carl W. Vogt, who voted to list the failure only a contributing factor to the accident, said there was no guarantee that preventive measures would have kept the accident from happening.