Local News

Couples reflects on deadly train accident 20 years later

SEBRING - That Charles and Terry Wiggins of Sebring both say that were it not for their age and physical challenges they would be planning their next train trip might come as a surprise to some. Two decades ago, on Sept. 22, 1993, they were passengers on the Sunset Limited passenger train when part of it plunged from a railroad bridge into an Alabama bayou. While they survived the accident, 47 other passengers and crew died. Many of them were in train cars that went into the water in what was described as Amtrak's deadliest accident. "We feel very fortunate," Charles Wiggins said.
But the accident was not the fault of the train, he pointed out. "We put that behind us," he declared. It was a foggy night and a towboat was pushing six loaded barges, he recalled. With visibility lessened, the operator of the towboat took a wrong turn and ended up leaving the river and heading up Big Bayou Canot, where it crashed into the railroad bridge, knocking the structure out of alignment with the tracks. Wiggins said the train car in front of them dangled precariously on the bridge while their car was stranded. When the crash occurred, he said, "I was awakened by being thrown violently from one side of my bunk to the other," he said. "The safety net was all that prevented me from being flung out onto the floor." His wife ended up on the floor with the mattress on top of her, he said. Although another Sebring couple, Bob and Ruth Bahler, were also riding in the same car, the Wiggins' did not know that until after the accident. Bob Bahler and his wife, who left Sebring and moved to Indiana about five years ago, were not seriously injured in the accident. "We're lucky we're here," Bob Bahler said in a telephone interview. He said it was very unfortunate so many people drowned. He and his wife had been on the train since Seattle, but the Wiggins got on in New Orleans. Since then they haven't taken a train trip, Bob Bahler said, but added it had nothing to do with the accident. He said as a former railroad employee he rode many trains before retiring. In the two decades following the accident, Wiggins said, the Bahlers have remained good friends. Looking back at the accident, Wiggins doubts that modern technology, such like cell phones, would have made a difference. The pilot of the tug boat didn't know he had hit a bridge and the train was only 12 minutes away, Wiggins said. jmeisel@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5834