Orange Park train conductor's widow sues CSX, Amtrak over S.C. crash

14-page wrongful death complaint says both companies were negligent

By Garrett Pelican - Digital executive producer, Erik Avanier - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The widow of an Amtrak train conductor and Orange Park man who was killed in a weekend collision with a CSX freight train in South Carolina is suing Amtrak and CSX, court records show.

Christine Cella filed a wrongful death complaint Thursday in Duval County, alleging both companies were negligent for the conditions that led to the crash that killed her husband, 36-year-old Michael Cella, and 54-year-old engineer Michael Kempf, of Savannah.

"Ms. Cella and her children are coping as best as one can imagine. This is a tragic time for her. She’s a young mother of two young children. They lost their breadwinner, father and husband. Naturally, it’s very difficult for her," attorney Howard Spier, who's representing Cella's family, told News4Jax on Thursday. "She wants to know what happened to her husband. The children want to know what happened to their father and this lawsuit will get that information to her and her children."

The Amtrak train was heading from New York to Miami with 136 passengers and nine crew members on board when it was diverted into a side track and crossed paths with a parked CSX freight train shortly after 2:30 a.m. Sunday in Cayce, a suburb of Columbia, according to a copy of the complaint.

In addition to Cella's and Kempf's deaths, an estimated 116 people were hospitalized with injuries ranging from scratches to broken bones following the crash and subsequent derailment, authorities in Lexington County, South Carolina, previously said.

DOCUMENT: View the entire wrongful death complaint

The 14-page complaint states that the track was locked in the wrong position because of negligence by CSX employees. It also states that CSX switched off or suspended the track side signals in the area, meaning that segment of the track was not controlled by signals.

According to the complaint, there were no fewer than 28 instances of negligence against CSX and an additional nine against Amtrak. It claims that both companies were at fault for failing to discover or warn the crew of the disabled switch.

The suit states that while the train was removed from signals, the crew did not have "the benefit of any track side signals or positive train control (PTC), a system that if implemented could have likely prevented the two trains in this case from colliding."

That argument is supported by statements from federal investigators, who say the GPS-based PTC system could have prevented the wreck. The system, which pinpoints the locations of all trains and positions of switches in a certain area, can recognize problems before they turn deadly.

"It could have avoided this accident. That's what it's designed to do," said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt.

Spier said the crash was a result of a breakdown in communication between CSX and Amtrak. 

"They were not communicating correctly with each other, and even less communication with the Amtrak train," he said. "These poor folks on the Amtrak train didn't know what hit them."

The lawsuit accuses Amtrak, Cella's employer, of failing to ensure he had a safe working environment. 

"I would dare say that track, at the time, was not reasonably safe and Amtrak is required to make it safe for its passenger trains," Spier said. "This should never happen again."

Cella’s widow also wants to send out a nationwide message that changes need to be made to make railroading safer. That message was echoed by Cella’s former Amtrak co-worker Michael Callanan. 

“It doesn't matter whose track you’re running on or what railroad’s responsible. Amtrak has a No. 1 duty to not only the passengers, but also the employees to maintain a safe environment," Callanan told News4Jax on Friday. 

A CSX spokeswoman said the company will not be making a statement while the suit plays out in court. An Amtrak spokesperson could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

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