Speed cited in train crash: Authorities say video was key in inquiry

Rescue workers look over the scene of an accident March 18 after a children's train ride in Spartanburg derailed. A 6-year-old boy died and 28 others were injured when the trail left the rails and went into a ditch.

Alex Hicks Jr

SPARTANBURG — 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.

An 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.

Probe: Speed caused SC train ride derailment