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

Lanford didn't see the tacked-up copy as he'd driven in, and he feels strongly that if it had been there before the rescuers arrived, it would have shown bright and white under the full moon, especially as they were inching along, unsure where the train would be and looking closely at everything in their path.

Nor was it likely that the copy inside the sleeper car had been there, unnoticed on the ride from Phoenix, suggesting that whoever left it had either been waiting in the dark for the wreck and slipped in and out during the commotion or that one of the rescue workers had planted it.

By 8:30 in the morning, all of the injured had been evacuated from the train, and an hour later, an Amtrak locomotive chugged in to drag the standing cars and the remaining passengers back to Phoenix.

The Buckeye Rural Fire Department sent a bill for $12,716.87 to the Arizona Division of Emergency Services, its calculated price for 53 firefighters, four command officers, one mechanic, 14 vehicles and a generator. The state wrote back saying that Buckeye had overcharged by $181.

"They say I screwed 'em," Lanford says with a cynical laugh.

The Sons of the Gestapo letter began with a writerly flourish about how the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, burned down in its stand-off with federal agents.

Before dawn the women awoke to say their morning prayers. They lit their kerosene lamps because the electricity had been turned off. After observing lights in all the upstairs windows, the FBI ordered the tear gas bombardment. [. . .] Over the next few hours ventilation holes were poked in the walls. The holes made the fire burn very much faster. Otherwise the fire department would have had the time to put out the fire before the women and children died in the flames. [. . .] A minute afterwards, black smoke started to pour out of the windows where the lamps had burned. This is the normal time needed for a kerosene fire to build up.

All of which are details notable to the authorities because few people would know or care about them unless they had a working knowledge of fire behavior. The letter's ending rails about the FBI, ATF, state and local police departments. It mentions Ruby Ridge, then localizes the rant with an allusion to the chokehold death of Eddie Mallet at the hands of Phoenix police. To the FBI experts composing a profile of the perpetrator, this suggested some law enforcement experience.

Operation Splitrail, as the investigation came to be called, had little else to go on.

"By the time we responded, hundreds of people had been through the crime scene," says the FBI's Jack Callahan.

The evidence had been trampled, the rumor mill filled with reports of mysterious vehicles stuck in the road and strangers with cowboy hats.

On his way in, Scott Benbow had encountered a man in a pickup truck going in the wrong direction who told him that the train wreck was still a couple of miles farther on. Benbow had not thought much of it at the time, but later wondered if it had been a saboteur making his escape. Benbow brought it up over and over to FBI agent after FBI agent and became increasingly frustrated that it always seemed to be news to them.

One source familiar with the FBI investigation said that Benbow's trucker "was picked up on very quickly, and, I think, turned out to be a first responder who, after he got out there, was called and told, 'No, you were supposed to bring the goddamned firetruck.'"

That dismissal infuriates Lanford.
"They're full of shit," Lanford says. "We had tons of people coming out to the scene. Why would we send someone back?"

Furthermore, he points out, not only did most of the rescuers arrive in their private vehicles, but fire trucks that could make it to the scene wouldn't have been of much use.

"So whoever you got that from, you tell him that I said it was bullshit," Lanford continues. "I'll tell him personally."

To the rural firefighters, the endless stream of special agents seemed to be a parade of rubes in rental cars, Barney Fife cops in suits, asking the same questions over and over.

"Sometimes we go back to people nine or ten times," says Callahan. And if his agency comes back, Callahan continues, "then there's reason to be there."

On one occasion, Lanford claims, FBI agents searched for days for a local suspect without finding him. When a TV reporter came to the Buckeye station to ask for advice, Scott Benbow had the "suspect" on the phone within minutes.

Lanford lashed out in the press at repeated FBI visits. As recently as February 1998, the FBI demanded that Buckeye open its personnel files to look for any employees who had left the department after or shortly before the wreck.

But the first firefighter suspect to show up on the public radar screen was Tonopah Captain Steve Hurley.

By November 1995, Hurley's name arose in the whispering fraternity of firemen because the FBI had asked former employers to provide his employment records.

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