SC train wreck conductor: I'm a victim, too

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Posted: Mar 23, 2011 7:35 PM
SC train wreck conductor: I'm a victim, too

The man at the helm of the children's train ride that crashed and killed a 6-year-old boy said Wednesday that the wreck hurt him emotionally and physically.

"I'm as much a victim here as anyone else," said Matt Conrad, flanked by two attorneys, his right arm in a sling. "I'm suffering, too."

Conrad, who had not spoken out publicly until the Greenville news conference, said he was unprepared for the onslaught of media attention he's received since the wreck Saturday at Spartanburg's Cleveland Park. Benji Easler was killed and 27 other passengers injured when the nearly 60-year-old train derailed on a bridge.

Standing by statements he'd made in an online trains forum about repairs he made to the train and its tracks last summer, Conrad also said he had absolute confidence in both when he was driving the engine.

"They were safe, and that train stopped very nicely," he said, of the brakes. "I'm always evaluating the track. ... If I had felt anything, anything at all that would have told me there's a problem, I would have stopped."

Police said Tuesday that Conrad told an officer accompanying him to a hospital, "I was going too (expletive) fast."

On Wednesday, Conrad's attorneys said their client was in shock when he made that statement and now feels mechanical error caused the crash.

A day earlier, county parks officials disputed several of Conrad's online assertions well before the crash that the train involved in the wreck hadn't run in years and that there had been "no appreciable" maintenance on the park's tracks since 2002.

Spartanburg County parks spokeswoman Nisha Patel said the train was running during summer 2009, was shelved for refurbishment _ done by Conrad _ in 2010 and that there had been regular inspections to ensure safety of the tracks.

Authorities have not said what caused the crash and say their investigation is continuing. Witnesses have said the train sped up during its third lap around the circuit.

Visitation for the boy was planned Wednesday evening at Corinth Baptist Church in Gaffney, with a funeral planned for Thursday.

On Wednesday, one of the families injured in the crash filed a lawsuit, accusing state and county officials of negligence.

"I think the family is shocked by what happened and what they've learned over the past few days and feel like they are ready to bring a lawsuit to try to bring light to what has happened," Spartanburg attorney Tom Killoren, who represents the family, said prior to the filing.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in circuit court in Spartanburg County, accuses the county, its parks commission and the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation of negligence in the crash.

Park employees should have warned passengers about potential dangers of the ride, while state officials should have properly ensured that it was safe before letting anyone on it, the lawsuit alleges.

Killoren represents Brooks Harris, who was with his wife and two children on the ride when it toppled off the bridge.

A spokeswoman for the county parks commission said she couldn't comment on the lawsuit. A state labor department representative did not immediately return a message.

On Monday, state officials fired the inspector who approved the ride for operation. They said he admitted falsifying a report for an inspection done March 16.

Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation chief Catherine Templeton said Donnie Carrigan could not have tested the Spartanburg ride because a battery in the train was dead, making it inoperable. Templeton also said the department was reviewing other facilities inspected.