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

Benbow turns west onto the primitive double track that follows the rails to the wreck site, only then slowing to at least a respectful speed, to bounce the truck through washes without bottoming out.

On the night of the wreck, this road was even more rugged. The first firefighters in had had to haul away the beef-jerky carcasses of cows that had been hit by trains. Seventeen sheriff's Crown Vic cruisers that forced their way in earned flat tires. Benbow had called on local farmers to come out with tractors and grade the impassable stretches and the helicopter landing zones. Later, a road had to be built to bring in heavy equipment so that the railroad could hoist the cars back onto the track.

Most of the washes are spanned by picturesque 1930s wooden trestles. The trestle at Quail Springs Wash, where the saboteurs moved the rails, is long enough to require steel beams. Benbow and other firefighters had scratched their first names and last initials where the trestle's original commemorative plaques had been. In the underbrush along the wash are hinges and pieces of rail and other debris left over from the wreck and its repair.

The derailment site is ringed by mountains that made it near impossible for the rescue workers to stay in radio contact with each other and with their dispatchers. It's parched and desolate, but pretty enough to make you die of heartbreak, if you didn't die of thirst.

Lanford bends over and mugs as if he is trying to pull the rails out of place, and he looks strong enough to do it. He's a big ol' boy, tall and lanky, a full-time cotton farmer and small-town stalwart.

When the Buckeye school district auctioned off its outdated equipment, he bought the big, old-fashioned slide from the school he attended as a child and set it up as a monument of sorts in his front yard.

Benbow looks like the late lead singer of the rock group Sublime: shaved head and a little mustache, with arms like hams and a beer drinker's belly. He likes to tell jolly stories about barfights or baby rattlesnakes falling through a roadhouse roof onto the pool table and interrupting his game.

They shuck and joke and jive like good ol' boys, but if somebody needs to save your sorry ass someday, these are the fellows that you want to see running to your rescue.

And this has not gone unnoticed. Lanford was one of the first firefighters on-scene, and he shared command with the Sheriff's Office, and consequently he's been invited to tell his story to firefighter gatherings all over the country.

Sometime on the night of October 8, or the morning of October 9, 1995, at the gentle, 50-mile-per-hour curve leading up to the trestle, someone pulled 29 of the spikes that hold the rails in place, levered one rail out of place and buttressed it so it wouldn't slip back. The rails carry an electrical current, and if the current shorts out, then railroad maintenance workers know there's a break in the track. The saboteurs ran a wire from one rail to the next before they separated them so that to the railroad personnel monitoring the controls, it would appear that the tracks were still connected.

The sabotage probably only took about 15 minutes; the last train had passed that site unscathed just 18 hours before.

At 1:22 a.m. on October 9, the Sunset Limited, Amtrak's cross-country passenger train, en route from Orlando to Los Angeles, came around the curve at 52 miles per hour. When it hit the break, the train's two engines and its first car left the rails but stayed upright on the trestle, skidding all the way across and gouging two-inch-deep ruts in the railroad ties beneath.

The next five cars, however, buckled and plunged 30 feet down into the deep sand of Quail Springs Wash. Miraculously, only one person was killed, an Amtrak porter named Mitchell Bates, who died in his bunk of a broken neck.

The train engineer radioed his dispatcher in Denver, who called the Amtrak office in Phoenix, which in turn picked up the phone and dialed 911. The Phoenix Fire Department operator who took the call was at first confused: The wreck was at "milepost 847," and the operator knew there were no roads that long in the state. Once it was ascertained that this was a train wreck, phone calls flittered among DPS and Rural/Metro Fire Department and the Yuma and Maricopa County Sheriff's Offices. Then MCSO called the Buckeye Police Department, which called Bill Lanford at home. It was 1:52 a.m.

Lanford threw his gear into the back of his personal pickup truck, and as he was backing out of the driveway, two MCSO Crown Victorias sped past. Lanford followed them; three Buckeye Volunteer firefighters pulled into the convoy along the way.

The dust thrown up by the road nearly obscured the full moon. Lanford listened as the radio dispatchers fine-tuned directions, wondering what he'd find when he got there.

They reached the wreck at 2:35 a.m., an hour and 13 minutes after it derailed; a DPS helicopter had landed on a low rise along the wash seven minutes before.

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