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

"They said 300 people on the radio," Lanford recalls, "so I'm thinking carnage."

But when he got out of his truck, he saw that most of the train cars were upright and the victims were quiet.

An Amtrak employee came up to him and shouted, "We were sabotaged." Lanford thought, "Maybe so," but hurried past to the train.

He crawled through the overturned cars to get to the injured. "Everyone was real calm," he says.

Benbow went first to the Buckeye firehouse, loaded backboards and mass-casualty kits, batteries and other supplies into a one-ton truck and hooked a generator and a light tower to the back and set out. Other rescuers were complaining of the dust on the road in, so Benbow got on the radio and called for a water truck to spray it down and called farmers to come grade the road in and landing zones for the helicopters at the site and at the staging area set up where Agua Caliente Road crossed the tracks.

When he reached the train, Benbow claims he found a lot of drunks. Apparently, after they'd counted teeth and fingers and toes, the passengers broke into the train's bar car and liberated the alcohol, presumably for medicinal purposes. One man, Benbow maintains, came through the crash unscathed, but then got so drunk that he fell and hit his head and had to be airlifted to a hospital.

Of 248 passengers on the train, only 83 were injured. They were gathered and tended to on the south side of the trestle where the wash was wider and the med-evac helicopters could land and take off more easily.

As the scene filled with firefighters and their trucks, the commander radioed back to Agua Caliente Road to close access. All ambulances would stay there and await patients.

Most of the firefighters already out at the train were from Buckeye Rural, but at least one crew from Rural/Metro's western station, and two fire captains from Tonopah Valley Fire Department, arrived before the road closed.

Tonopah Valley was an upstart squad from north of I-10 near the Palo Verde Nuclear Power plant. They'd "jumped the call," that is, heard the dispatch go out to the Buckeye Rural Fire Department, and decided they'd go, too.

Captain Steve Hurley arrived in a firetruck with several volunteers. Captain Robert Spinner was behind the wheel of a four-wheel-drive "attack truck," a small pumper used to fight brush fires. Hurley initially stayed at the staging site while Spinner followed the tracks to the train, slowing only to tow another truck out of a ditch. When he reached the train, he approached Lanford and demanded they share "incident" command.

Lanford was somewhat put off. Spinner had no subordinates on-scene--Lanford had nearly 60. And so Lanford, who was sharing command with MCSO, suggested instead that Spinner tend to passengers in the fallen cars.

"I thought he was kind of an asshole, myself," Lanford says of Spinner.
There was bad blood between the two departments. The fledgling Tonopah company was just months old and muscling into Buckeye's call area. Buckeye medics looked at the Tonopah crew as cowboys, and they'd get in arguments at emergency calls and car wrecks along I-10.

Shortly after the derailment, other Tonopah firefighters told New Times that Spinner had been the first to discover the wire connecting the separated tracks. Spinner had told New Times in 1995, "I was walking by when they found the wire." Spinner has since left the state for parts unknown.

Whereas Spinner downplayed his part in the drama, the other Tonopah captain, Steve Hurley, still tells people that he was the first officer on-scene. He was not.

As the scene was becoming increasingly chaotic, with trucks rushing in and helicopters landing, Hurley hitched a ride to the train on a med-evac helicopter whose pilot he knew, leaving his volunteers with Bill Ballard, a Harquahala Valley volunteer who then had been assistant chief at Tonopah.

Radio transmission in and out of the scene was largely blocked by the mountains that ringed the site. And the ever-increasing media types were clogging all cell phone channels. Hurley claims he spent about 15 minutes at the train and then volunteered to stay in the helicopter overhead, relaying radio messages.

At around 3:45 a.m., a sheriff's officer came up to Lanford and an MCSO sergeant and said, "Sarge, maybe you want to take a look at this."

It was the Sons of the Gestapo letter, two copies of which had been found on the tracks on either side of the train.

"I got goosebumps when I read that thing," says Lanford, "and I thought, 'They could blow the trestle.'"

Deputies checked beneath the trestle, and Lanford and the deputies started wondering who could be watching from the darkness of the desert and whether they'd have guns.

Meanwhile, Lynn Bartley, a Buckeye volunteer firefighter, stopped to talk to three passengers smoking cigarettes outside their sleeper car, and they showed her another copy of the letter that they had found taped up inside the car.

"The sons of bitches tried to kill us," one woman said to Bartley.
A fourth copy of the letter was later found tacked to a fence post several miles back down the track road.

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