An Amtrak train headed to Miami derails near Mobile, Alabama, killing 47 people on this day in 1993. The accident, the deadliest in Amtrak’s history, was caused by a negligent towboat operator and foggy conditions.
The Sunset Limited train travels from Los Angeles through Texas to New Orleans before arriving in Miami, Florida. It is known for carrying older people who prefer not to make the trip by air or car. In the very early morning hours of September 22, the train was traveling through Alabama. Three locomotives pulling eight cars left Mobile at 1:30 a.m. heading toward Birmingham across a swampy area.
Meanwhile, the Mauvilla, a towboat operated by the Warrior and Gulf Navigation Company, was pulling six barges of coal and wood through the Alabama marshes. Andrew Stabler, the captain, was sleeping as the towboat and barges made their way up the Mobile River. Willie Odeon, another employee of Warrior and Gulf, was driving the boat, but did not know how to use the radar system. The boat had no compass or nautical charts to assist in navigation on the foggy night and, without realizing it, Odeon turned into the Big Bayou Canot, an area where barges are prohibited.
At 2:45 a.m., the Mauvilla struck a rail bridge. The bridge was only seven to 12 feet above the water (depending on the tides) and was in place so that trains could pass through the swamps. When the boat collided with the bridge, it knocked the tracks out of alignment by three feet. Several minutes later, the Sunset Limited came down the tracks at 70 miles per hour, hit the misplaced tracks and derailed. The three locomotives and the first four cars of the train plunged into the water.
The crew of the Mauvilla did not make a rescue call until 3:08 a.m., but did manage to pull seven survivors out of the swamp. Those who did not drown were put in even more danger when a fire broke out. Two of the disaster’s 47 victims died from burns. The Coast Guard did not arrive on the scene until 4:25 a.m., and it was another hour before the first helicopter arrived to assist in the rescue efforts.
The crew of the Mauvilla was severely criticized for their actions but escaped criminal liability.