Dedicated to all victims of the fatal DB rail car fire on 11-6-2002 In Nancy, France
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May their voices be heard, their sacrifice never forgotten
On May 16, 2011, nearly 9 years after a fatal train fire claimed 12 victims, verdicts were delivered for three defendants who stood at trial in Nancy, France, charged with involuntary manslaughter. After a guilty verdict for the Deutsche Bahn car attendant, the court favored the other two defendants, SNCF and Deutsche Bahn with acquittal. With the acquittal of Deutsche Bahn, that fatal train fire has now claimed justice as its 13th victim, as the facts of this case belie anything other than the direct responsibility of Detusche Bahn in this tragedy.
Deutsche Bahn has maintained, in contradiction to the facts, that the victims died peacefully in their sleep from smoke inhalation. When I identified the bodies, my sister-in-law and nephew’s faces were visibly lacerated and bruised. In one of the saddest moments, several survivors testified that while frantically trying to break the windows from the outside with rocks, they watched helplessly as my 12 year old niece’s hands slowly slid down the window for the final time, as she drew her last breath. Another survivor in the next compartment credits my mother’s screams with awakening him, thereby saving his life. I know my mother, and I can’t imagine any pain greater for her than the horror of knowing that not only would her son and daughter in law die, so too would her grandchildren. No, this is not how one dies peacefully in their sleep.
The first and most important charge of a public transportation company is its responsibility as a common carrier for the safety of its passengers. How can one of the largest rail companies in the world be so myopic? This wasn’t an accident, this was an accident waiting to happen. Eleven innocent people who mistakenly entrusted their lives to DB died, not from a fire, but from the hands of reckless indifference to the safety of passengers entrusted to their care.
DB has waged a very public PR campaign to proclaim their innocence and enhance their image. I question the sincerity of a company which finally and begrudgingly apologized to the victims 8 ½ years after the tragedy. I question the sincerity of a company whose first official communication to me, two weeks after my family was killed, was legal notice of a hostile legal action they had instituted against me and my family. As a matter of corporate self protection, their premature declaration of not being at fault clouded their ability to be objective once all the facts were known.
There is a moral bankruptcy to DB’s hiding behind the skirts of the conveniently guilty car attendant. His panic didn’t lock the exit doors, his panic didn’t hide emergency hammers, his panic didn’t put clothes hooks above the stove, his panic wasn’t the reason there were no posted safety and emergency instructions, his panic wasn’t the reason he had had only one day of emergency training in 42 years, his panic alone did not cause the death of 11 victims. Deutsche Bahn, their policies, designs, equipment and lack of training caused the death of 12 victims.
How can a company not be responsible for the actions of their employees? It’s not as if this was a “rogue” employee, he was a legitimate public representative of DB. If a company is not responsible for the actions of their employees in the course of their good faith professional efforts, who is? According to this logic, DB would never have liability as equipment failures would be the liability of the manufacturer and food poisoning on the dining car would be the liability of the purveyor. There is a stench of arrogance coming from DB which only emboldens them in their callousness and disregard for passenger safety. The question needs to be asked: Is DB worthy of the public’s trust with their conferred state monopoly?
It’s time for DB to understand its duty to its passengers and a commitment to safety as priority. Instead of a legal strategy of avoiding being found guilty by procedural tactic, or otherwise, they need to be honest, first with themselves, then with the public they serve. Then, and only then, can they fulfill their mission with dignity and a corporate ethos of worthy respect.
"...this was an accident waiting to happen. 12 innocent people who mistakenly entrusted their lives to DB died, not from a fire, but the hands of a reckless indifference..."
"...in a horrifying spector, three of the victims were found inside the exit door, their skin fused to the metal floor by the intense heat, their escape stopped on the wrong side of a locked door..."
As five members of my family were killed on that train fire in November, 2002, I made the trip to France to attend the trial. Motivated by neither vengeance nor personal gain, I came to give the victims a voice so that they would neither be forgotten nor would they have died in vain. I am ever grateful to the Judicial Tribunal in Nancy for allowing me to address the court on behalf of all the victims.
On November 6, 2002, a DB Schlafwagen attached to an SNCF train traveling from Paris to Munich, passing thru Nancy, caught fire when the car attendant’s briefcase was placed on a hot plate igniting his jacket hanging above. Awakened by the fire, the attendant panicked when, finding no extinguisher, he was unable to contain the fire. Instead of alerting and helping the sleeping passengers, he fled five cars to the rear of the train in search of the conductor. Once he fled, the victims never had a chance as their fate was sealed by a lethal combination of missing safety equipment, errant procedures and policies, and equipment failure on an obsolete 40 year old wooden train car better suited for a museum than a railroad track.
That 8 passengers survived the fire was remarkable in itself. In a story line plausible only in novels, the exit doors were locked from both the inside and outside, accessible only with a key, a key tended by the fleeing attendant. In a horrifying specter, three of the victims were found inside the exit door, their skin fused to the metal floor by the intense heat, their escape presumably stopped on the wrong side of a locked door. Also locked from the outside, the firefighters lost 10 to 15 precious minutes trying to breach the doors, enough time for an uncontrolled fire to build up and become what one fire fighter testified as the hottest fire he had ever encountered.
With the doors locked, the only chance for escape was through the windows. This too, proved difficult as not only were the windows not designed to open, they had also been recently hardened. In another implausible story line, the emergency window hammers were unmarked and out of sight in a storage closet. Even had the hammers been visible and easily accessible, they were difficult to use. The only passenger to break the window with the hammer credited his profession as a physicist to properly use the hammer. He testified that the smallish hammer with a pointy end was designed, not to smash through the window rather, like a hatching bird’s beak breaking through its shell, the hammer was designed to peck a little hole followed by force to break the polymer.
The rail car had virtually no safety equipment installed; no smoke detectors, no posted emergency instructions, no communications systems and no fire extinguishers in the compartments. Nearly 40 years old, the wooden Schlafwagen had serious design defects, and would probably be in violation of current building and safety codes. From clothing hooks mounted over hot plates, to doors locked with no emergency release, to windows hardened and reinforced to the point of needing physicists to break them, to emergency hammers hidden from view. Even more frightening, the attendant testified that he had had only one day of safety & emergency training in 42 years with DB. Even my 14 year old son’s summer job as a swimming pool assistant had a longer safety training program.
Rollin Amore lost his mother, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew in the DB rail car fire on 11/6/02. He attended the trial in Nancy, March 2011
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