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Sunday, September 27, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tugboat Pilot Haunted By Rail Crash That Killed 47

Newhouse News Service

GRAND BAY, Ala. - The nearby train's whistle and wheels cut through the delicate veil of Willie Odom's sleep, and he sees again the fog outside his tugboat's wheelhouse and the little line on his radar screen. Lying in bed, he can feel the bump.

He sees the bridge and the fire. He sees the bodies in the water.

He stays asleep if he's taken his pill, but his screams wake his daughter and his grandchildren.

"It's going on five years, and it's hard to shake loose," Odom said. "Every year it rolls around; it's all over the world and everything."

Hours before dawn on Sept. 22, 1993, Odom, blinded by thick fog, steered the tugboat Mauvilla into the Bayou Canot northeast of Mobile and struck a railroad-bridge piling. The impact bent the tracks more than 3 feet. Five minutes later, just before 3 a.m., Amtrak's Sunset Limited, carrying 210 sleeping passengers, slammed into the damaged rails. The lead engine sailed off the bridge and 150 feet over the bayou to bury its nose 40 feet in the underwater mud. Other cars caught fire or sank.

Forty-seven people died, the worst wreck in Amtrak history.

It took a couple of days for the news media to link the derailment to the Mauvilla. It took Odom only a split second.

He doesn't talk about that night. For five years he has avoided reporters. His first interview took place in his living room Sept. 3 and lasted about half an hour.

"I wish I never had that accident," he said in the living room of his scuffed, brick home on a Grand Bay dirt road. "I had a good job, good money to raise my family. I used to tell my mother, `I should take me a gun and end all my troubles.' "

A blaze of fire

Odom took the helm of the Mauvilla at 11:30 p.m. Sept. 21, 1993, after Capt. Andrew Stabler went to bed. At age 45, he'd had his piloting license for three years, still a "cub." The Mauvilla headed north, bound for Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

The fog grew thicker as he made his way up the Bayou Sara. Soon Odom was driving blind in what pilots call a "shutout fog." He decided to tie up at one of the banks.

"I couldn't see with my lights," he testified in his only public statement in the past five years, a December 1993 hearing before members of the National Transportation Safety Board in Mobile.

His deckhand tried twice to throw a line around trees on the banks, but missed. Odom saw what he thought was another boat on the radar, and slowed.

"I couldn't see nothing, and then I kept looking. Then, after awhile, I felt a bump," he testified. He thought one of the six barges he was pushing had broken loose and scraped the tugboat.

The bump woke Stabler, who joined Odom on the deck as the small crew inspected their tow.

"All of a sudden I heard this `pshoo' noise go by and just a blaze of fire," Odom testified. "And then we, when we got up closer, we could see the bridge. That's the first time I seen the bridge.

"And then I say, I said, `Oh, my Lord, I done made the wrong turn.' "

No criminal charges were brought against the crew of the Mauvilla. No one on board tested positive for drugs or alcohol. Odom was named as a defendant in lawsuits brought by widows and widowers and other relatives of the dead, and by injured passengers, against Amtrak, CSX Transportation and the tugboat company, Warrior & Gulf Navigation. The lawsuits piled up in U.S. District Court in Mobile; a single, massive trial has been set for February 1999.

`He don't ever talk about it'

He's lost a lot of weight, down from 250 pounds in 1993 to 187 pounds now. He has a stomach ulcer. He sees a psychologist on occasion. He takes the antidepressant drug Paxil every day. The blinds in his the windows are crooked and broken. The telephone is out. His daughter's children play basketball in the yard.

Some days he stays in bed, his son-in-law said. He is 50 years old and carries himself like an old man.

His daughter, Williene Hill, 32, lived away from Mobile at the time of the accident but returned a couple of months later. "He wasn't nothing like my daddy when I left," she said.

Odom raised eight children alone after his first wife left and moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in the mid-1970s, their daughter said. Odom's mother, now 68 and an invalid, helped him. They lived in Foley until Hurricane Frederic destroyed their house in 1979. He took a job as a deckhand with Warrior & Gulf in 1980 and moved to Grand Bay.

"He's used to making that good money on that boat," Hill said. She and her family moved in with Odom recently to help pay the bills. He hasn't worked since the accident.

Odom sat elbows-on-knees on his couch in a dark living room and asked for a light for his menthol cigarette. "This is something I used not to do," he said. He shut the door to the kitchen because his mother hates smoke.

He avoided eye contact, constantly rubbing his beard and his droopy eyes, one of them puffy with an infection. He smoked down to the butt. His arms and legs are thin. His voice is deep and low.

"I live near a train. It bothers me. I can't seem to shake it. I stay worried and stressed out."

He has nightmares, his daughter said. He still doesn't sleep well at night.

Survivors recall kindness

After the train caught fire, Odom and Stabler and the Mauvilla's crew steered toward the scene. They couldn't see well in the smoke. They were afraid that if they came too close, the boat's powerful engines would suck swimming passengers underwater.

A Mauvilla deckhand, in a skiff, picked up swimmers coated with train fuel and drove them to the tug. The Mauvilla rescued 17 people in the water.

One of the survivors, a lounge-car attendant, spoke to a crew member on the tugboat; he didn't know which one.

The survivor testified at the hearing: "He told me, `I think I hit that bridge,' and he said, first he said, `I'm going to lose my job.' I said, `Why?' He said, `Because I hit that bridge.'

"I said, `It was an accident.' He said, `No,' he say, `I might even go to the penitentiary.' I said, `For a freak accident?' He said, `No,' he said, `Because the Coast Guard don't believe that.'

"And he said, `I saw the bridge, but I wasn't sure I hit it at first, but once I saw the train go in, I knew I had.' And he showed it to me on the radar screen, that he had seen the bridge back where he had saw it."

Odom would say that he didn't recall that conversation but did remember a similar one with the deckhand, in which he described the moment that the cause of the accident "dawned on me."

Another survivor, passenger Trudy Justin of Panama City, Fla., recalled recently the kindness of the Mauvilla crew that night, especially Odom.

"A man from the burning car had burned his feet, and (Odom) was trying to find him slippers. That's one of the things I remember," Justin said. She remembered seeing Odom at the hearing three months later. "He looked scared," she said.

She sends him a Christmas card every year.

Odom sat forward on his couch and thought about the question, what brings you happiness today?

"I go to church," he said.

Odom doesn't make it every Sunday. Last week, he stayed in bed.

His family brings him comfort. "When my kids come around, we talk. Some of them will cook out in the yard or something. I enjoy that, to get my mind off some of this stuff."

He called Stabler after the accident. His old captain never called back, he said.

"I decked for him for 10 years. You think you got a friend, and all of a sudden they turn their back on you."

Stabler, also a defendant in the lawsuits, could not be reached for comment.

Odom wants to work again. His daughter said he tried to get his pilot's license back. "Once, it looked like they were going to give it back to him," she said. He did not get it back.

"My psychologist told me I won't never be able to go back to it," Odom said. "You weren't there. You don't know. You didn't see the people like I did."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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