2007-08-04 / News

Train derailment details released

Testimony: Engineer said 'We're going to ride this out'

Testimony and documents made public in recent criminal proceedings have revealed details of the moments leading up to the June 30, 2006, train crash and lye spill near Gardeau.

Stevan Rogers, the train's conductor, pointed the finger at the engineer, Michael J. Seifert, for causing the derailment by speeding down a steep descent at about 76 miles per hour, far in excess of the 15-mph speed limit on that section of track.

Last week, criminal charges were filed against both the train owner, Norfolk Southern Corp., and Seifert individually.

The derailment spilled 42,000 gallons of lye into the soil, wetlands and waters, killing thousands of fish in miles of streams, mostly in Cameron County.

During an investigative grand jury proceeding in Dauphin County, Rogers' testimony revealed that Seifert, 46, of West Seneca, N.Y., appeared incoherent at times and fell asleep prior to the derailment. Several hours after the accident, morphine and benzodiazepines were detected in Seifert's bloodstream.

State Attorney General Tom Corbett said that Seifert had been disciplined by Norfolk Southern in the past for similar conduct. After the crash, Seifert was charged with two counts of risking a catastrophe and one count of reckless endangerment by the McKean County District Attorney's Office. Seifert posted bail and is awaiting trial on those charges.

Last week, the Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection also came down on Seifert with two felony counts of unlawful dumping of hazardous waste and one misdemeanor count of violating the Clean Streams Law.

Norfolk Southern was charged with two misdemeanor counts of unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act.

Rogers testified before the grand jury that he took over the train's controls as it climbed a steep hill near Keating Summit. He said that as the train cleared the summit, Seifert took over and remained in control, announcing to Rogers, "We're going to ride this out."

Emporium attorney Paul Malizia plans to mount a rigorous defense on Seifert's behalf. Malizia said he'll argue that drugs were not a factor.

"Norfolk Southern's own toxicologist has stated that the level of morphine in Mr. Seifert's bloodstream had no effect on either cognitive functioning or motor skills," Malizia said.

As far as Seifert's decision to "ride this out," Malizia says his client was following standard Norfolk Southern procedure.

"In 2000, while he was a trainee, Mr. Seifert was instructed by his supervisor to coast down Keating Summit and the full train at that time reached 73 mph," the attorney said.

Norfolk Southern was fined $8.89 million by the state, but has appealed. The railroad has spent nearly $4 million to remove contaminated soil and restore the affected area and waterways.

The company also donated to the Cameron County Conservation District to help address acid mine drainage in Sterling Run, which is not related to the spill.

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