Rescue Workers Grilled in Derailment Probe
Federal agents investigating the October 9 derailment of an Amtrak passenger train suspect that one or more of the rescuers who were on the scene that morning might have been responsible for the sabotage.
One key piece of evidence--a letter claiming responsibility that had been taped to a wall inside one of the derailed train cars--strongly suggests that a perpetrator was on the scene in the hours after the derailment.
Meanwhile, in a previously undisclosed development, a firefighter who responded to the wreck reported encountering a mysterious pickup truck en route.
Matt Phillips, spokesman for Rural/Metro Fire Department, says the FBI asked his department for employment records on one of its former firefighters who now works for the Tonopah Valley Fire District. That firefighter, Steve Hurley, a captain, was one of the first rescue workers on the scene.
The FBI has not identified Hurley--or any other individual--as a suspect.
Hurley, who has been convicted of forging prescriptions to obtain narcotics and is in a drug-offender program, has been fired by two fire departments in the Phoenix area.
In a 1987 lawsuit, Hurley accused the Phoenix and Rural/Metro fire departments of calling him an arsonist. According to the suit, Hurley went to work for Rural/Metro in November 1985 and was fired in March 1986. He claimed that he was fired after the Phoenix Fire Department told Rural/Metro he was an arsonist. Both departments denied the accusations, and the lawsuit was dismissed.
But the litigation did not go unnoticed in the wake of the wreck, especially because the Tonopah Valley Fire Department, which is less than a year old, arrived at the scene early on without having been dispatched.
According to Hurley, Tonopah firefighters heard the first calls for help over a radio scanner and asked the neighboring Buckeye Rural Fire Department whether they should respond.
Hurley's co-captain, Robert Spinner, drove off-road to the train in an attack vehicle, while Hurley initially stayed at the "staging site," seven miles from the wreck, then flew in a helicopter to the derailment site and helped with air communications.
Hurley expresses surprise at the FBI's interest in him or any other rescue workers.
"This is the first I've heard that they were considering that," Hurley tells New Times, although he acknowledges that the FBI has questioned him repeatedly and is aware of his record.
"The FBI is nowhere with the case," he says. "I've been a fireman for 13 years, so I've done arson investigation myself. You know what they call the 'helpful arsonist syndrome'? It's an arsonist who sets fires and wants to be there to help. Well, they're going the same way on this train accident--it's something that any good investigator would [do].
"I'm with them 100 percent. ... My life's an open book."
One Amtrak employee was killed and 78 people were injured in the predawn derailment. Someone had removed more than 20 spikes to separate the rails leading to a trestle.
The train left the tracks at 1:22 a.m. The two train engines and at least one car made it all the way across the trestle--their wheels dug gouges into the trestle's railroad ties. But two sleeper cars jackknifed into a wash, and a dining car dangled precipitously.
Rescuers did not reach the wreck for an hour, partly because of its remote location and partly because of the circuitous route the call for help took.
The train's engineer called his dispatcher over the radio. The dispatcher, who was in Denver, then called the station master at the Amtrak station in Phoenix, who dialed 911. The station master told a bewildered Phoenix Fire Department operator that the wreck had occurred at "milepost 847." The operator responded that no Arizona roads were that long, before realizing that the caller was referring to a railroad milepost.
Phoenix Fire called the state Department of Public Safety, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, Rural/Metro, the Yuma County Sheriff's Office and other departments totry to determine who was closest to thescene, and then everybody scrambled to get rescue units on the road.
In the weeks after the derailment, FBI agents methodically debriefed the 400-some passengers, law enforcement officers and rescue workers who were at the wreck or at the staging site, seven miles away.
Three letters signed by "Sons of the Gestapo" were found. Two letters were found alongside the tracks. The fact that a third letter was found inside a train car suggests that whoever taped the note to the wall was already on the train, was hiding near the scene, or arrived with rescue workers.
Bill Lanford, chief of the Buckeye Rural Fire District and one of the first firefighters to reach the train, says, "Eithersomebody rode the train--which I don't think they would, knowing it was going to derail--or somebody was actually on-scene and put it [the letter] up in the confusion."
FBI spokesman Jack Callahan is vague about where the investigation has led.
"I can tell you there are numerous focuses to this investigation," Callahan says. "That would include rescue workers; that would include railroad employees; that would include passengers; that would include residents in the area; that would include people who responded to the emergency call."
Callahan says the FBI is also still looking at subscribers to a railroad-buff magazine that recently ran an article describing how saboteurs derailed a train in Nevada in 1939.
Investigators' suspicions of rescue workers may be further bolstered by the fact that the "Sons of the Gestapo" letters found at the scene railed about the Waco showdown between federal agents and David Koresh's Branch Davidians. And, though the letter was printed in many daily newspapers, no one commented that it described how the Waco fire started and spread--the kind of details that might interest a firefighter.
FBI agents have interviewed some Buckeye and Tonopah firefighters as many as seven times, asking the same things over and over. Feathered into the interviews were questions about whether the derailment could have been caused by wanna-be heroes.
"One of the FBI agents asked one of my EMTs if he thought any of our people would have done it to get some publicity and be able to work a wreck," Lanford continues, "and he said, 'Heck, no!'"
About 5 a.m. on October 9, three and a half hours after the wreck, a Buckeye Rural volunteer firefighter named Lynn Bartley was flagged down by a group of passengers outside a coach car that was off the tracks but still upright.
"The sons of bitches tried to kill us," Bartley says one woman told her. She says the woman led Bartley into the car to show her where the "Sons of the Gestapo" note had been taped to the wall. Bartley took some photographs and notified FBI agents.
Apparently, someone had slipped onto the train in the confusion after the wreck and taped it there.
But getting to the site was no casual matter. Deputies and firefighters had to four-wheel alongside the tracks for more than seven miles; many of their vehicles got stuck along the way. And the surrounding desert offered no great places to hide other than the darkness of night. Other rescuers who were at the scene doubt that anyone could have walked into their midst, put up the note, then faded back into the landscape without being noticed.
One of the first firefighters to reach the train, however, reported seeing a mystery truck on his way in.
A Buckeye Rural firefighter, Scott Shannon Bembow, says he saw a two-tone pickup on the railroad right of way, far beyond the graded road.
"It was coming out of the scene, and we were going into the scene," says Bembow, "and it had to pull over because I was in a two-wheel-drive vehicle."
The driver was a white male in his late 20s or early 30s, wearing a baseball cap and a mustache. "I stopped because he had his window down," Bembow continues. "All he said was, 'It's about two more miles.' And then he kind of gunned it and took off."
Bembow had two other firefighters with him on the truck.
"The strange thing about it," he says, "is that nobody in front of us from our battalion saw the truck, and the people behind us never saw the truck, either."
Bembow says he didn't think much of the encounter at the time, because "we had no idea it was a crime scene. We were assuming the train just fell off the tracks."
Later, the encounter seemed more significant to him, and he related it to the FBI.
"The FBI didn't seem interested in it," he says.
FBI spokesman Callahan would not comment on reports of the pickup truck.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.