SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Excessive speed was to blame for the South Carolina miniature train derailment that killed a 6-year-old boy and injured dozens of others, according to authorities who said Monday they used video shot by a young passenger to help determine how fast the ride was moving.
Benji Easler was killed and 28 others injured when the train went off the rails and into a ditch at Spartanburg's Cleveland Park on March 19. Investigators said the train was going more than 20 mph, nearly three times recommended speeds.
"The only problem was the operator," said investigator and accident reconstruction specialist Charles Manning. "Too fast. That was the complete cause of the accident, just too fast."
An attorney for train operator Matt Conrad said investigators never interviewed his client beyond his statement during an ambulance ride to the hospital in which he said, "I was going too (expletive) fast."
Grant Varner has said his client was in shock when he made that statement. Conrad has said he is distraught over the crash, but did not think he was to blame.
Coroner Rusty Clevenger said he is handing his report over to prosecutors, who will decide if any charges will be filed.
The 8-year-old's video shows that as the train rounded the tracks on its third loop, it hit 22.3 mph — nearly three times the safe speed of 8 mph, Manning said.
"That video was critical," he said.
It paints the macabre picture of a joyful spring day that turned grisly.
Varner said the train had made several successful runs that day at the same speed without any problem. The train's speedometer didn't work properly and Conrad had never been told there was a maximum speed, he said.
A device that would prevent the train from going beyond a safe speed also was never set properly, Varner said.
Varner also questioned whether the coroner's office could conduct just an investigation and whether a county agency should be involved since the crash happened on its park property.
"Today, they turn around and attempt to dump the blame on my client," Varner said. "If it was solely operator error, he would have had to do something that he was told not to do."
In the 5 1/2 minute recording, children talk, laugh and cheer excitedly as they wait for the train to start up. A bell clangs as the ride begins.
The train speeds up on its second lap, some children squealing with joy. On its third loop the train has speeded up again, the video shakier as trees and lamp posts become blurred. A loud crash sends the image hurtling end over end, refocusing again on several pairs of children's feet resting in a brown pool of water — the creek bed underneath the bridge.
"Oh my God," a woman says. "Help me," a girl pleads. Children's screams fill the air until the video cuts off.
State officials swiftly fired the inspector who had approved the ride for operation just days before it crashed. He admitted afterward that he had falsified his report and couldn't have tested the ride because the train's battery was dead. But investigators said Monday they found no mechanical problems with the train or its tracks.
One family injured in the crash has sued, accusing county officials of not adequately supervising the train operator or inspecting the park's tracks and alleging that state officials failed in their train inspection.
Lawmakers want to revise state law limiting how much those injured could seek for medical bills and other expenses. A pending bill would exclude medical expenses from the current $600,000 per-occurrence liability cap that protects the government from paying unlimited damages, regardless of the number of government entities involved.
Dwight Easler, the father of the boy killed in the crash, said Monday he was still struggling to understand what happened, though was satisfied with the report.
"Physically, I'm better. Emotionally, it's day-to-day," said Easler, who was also injured in the derailment. "No one should ever go through the Mother's Day my wife just went through."
Easler said he hopes authorities will work to ensure that no other families have to endure what he has.
"We hope and pray that those who are found to be at fault and liable for this accident will quickly take responsibility for this tragedy and do what is godly and right," he said.
Kinnard and Associated Press writer Page Ivey reported from Columbia. Kinnard can be reached at http://www.twitter/com/MegKinnardAP
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