Trainspotting

Nearly three years after Amtrak's Sunset Limited was sabotaged near Buckeye, firefighters who rode to the rescue remain on the FBI's list of suspects

Info:Correction Date: 08/27/1998
Info:
Trainspotting

Nearly three years after Amtrak's Sunset Limited was sabotaged near Buckeye, firefighters who rode to the rescue remain on the FBI's list of suspects

By Michael Kiefer
An hour and a half past midnight on October 9, 1995, when four cars of Amtrak's Sunset Limited passenger train fishtailed off a trestle into a remote desert wash somewhere west of Buckeye and east of nowhere, an army of sheriff's officers and firefighters raced to the rescue in helicopters, pickups and fire trucks.

Miraculously, only one person was killed, about 80 injured, and by first light, they'd all been trundled off to Valley hospitals, and the uninjured passengers were being towed back to Phoenix.

At first it seemed pure Americana--small-town volunteers, real people saving real people's lives. But soon it turned into America at its most cynical.

The track had been sabotaged, 29 spikes pulled out, the rails spread apart, still joined by a jumper wire so as not to short the electrical current that runs through the rails and alert Amtrak officials that there was a break.

Even then, it might have been written off as high-tech vandalism by desert rats on a bender who were looking for something to blow up real good. But rescue workers on-scene found the letters.

The letters didn't exactly claim responsibility; rather, they railed dramatically against the FBI and the ATF and sounded all the same tired liturgies about Waco and Ruby Ridge we've heard these last several years. They were signed Sons of the Gestapo, which sounded vaguely terrorist and militialike, a hot topic that year because the smell of explosives still hung in the air from Oklahoma City.

But there was no such organization. FBI investigators quickly dismissed the militia angle as a red herring, a distraction perhaps, or somebody trying to make . . . what point?

The investigation spread in a hundred directions. FBI special agents relentlessly interviewed railroad workers, businessmen who might make a profit from cleaning up the mess, subscribers to a magazine that described an unsolved 1930s derailment, desert hairballs, and the friends and neighbors and families of all of the above.

Most ironic, they pursued the very firefighters who pulled off the efficient rescue, assuming that some perverse paramedics had wrecked the train so that they could ride to the rescue, a twist on the archetypal deviant fireman who sets fires so that he can heroically put them out.

An Amtrak spokesman refers to the derailment as "not something we care to revisit." Too bad. A federal grand jury is revisiting it, and FBI agents revisit it every day.

Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney's Office will let on how much it actually knows about the perpetrator or perpetrators. Rumor and hearsay follow the investigators around Buckeye and Tonopah and Harquahala Valley and Hyder, the towns nearest the train wreck.

Last September, an FBI secretary accidentally faxed to the media a confidential memo that implicated several former members of the now-extinct Tonopah Valley Fire Department, some of whom responded to the emergency.

Jack Callahan, spokesman for the Phoenix branch of the FBI, admits that the FBI has not ascertained any logical motive for the crime, but that some of the generic groups that his agency was looking into have been eliminated: railroad workers with a grudge, salvage workers.

Firefighters remain high on the list. Not so much in the spotlight as in limbo.

"It's not the type of case where you say it's that one group and it's simply a matter of assembling the proof," says one source close to the U.S. Attorney. "There are a lot of different leads that when you initially get explained why they're a lead, you go, 'Oh, they must have done it.' When you hear four or five of them, you go, 'Well, all of them didn't do it.'"

"We rarely tell people they are suspects, so we wouldn't tell them they aren't," the FBI's Callahan says.

When the train plowed through the desert wash, it plowed through some lives: the victims' lives, of course.

And the rescuers' lives as well.
They know they are suspects, but not how suspect they are.
The case may be unsolvable. They could be suspects forever.

From the way the Buckeye Valley Rural Fire Department command vehicle is rocketing down old U.S. 80 at 85 miles per hour, you might think it's on the way to an emergency. Firefighter Scott Shannon Benbow is behind the wheel; Buckeye Valley Rural Fire Chief Bill Lanford rides shotgun.

The truck swerves off the pavement onto Agua Caliente Road, a dirt road that winds 40 miles to the tiny town of Hyder. The road has just been graded and watered, and so Benbow only slows to 55 mph. The road is narrow, and the Ford Explorer goes up on two wheels on curves. Benbow's a paramedic, so if he flips it and survives, he'll be able to perform first aid on the other passengers in the truck.

About 18 miles in, Agua Caliente crosses the Southern Pacific tracks. This is where the rescue operation set up a triage and staging area. Injured passengers were flown here from the train, seven miles farther on, and then packed into waiting ambulances.

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