SPARTANBURG, S.C. — 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.”Physically, (I’m) OK. Emotionally, I’m heartbroken,” Matt Conrad, 42, said as he spoke to reporters Wednesday at the office of his attorneys, Kim Varner.”It was worse than my worst nightmare,” he said.Conrad said the morning of the accident he had performed a two-lap test run on the tracks at slow speed, then did a three-lap test run at a faster speed “exactly they way I run it for the public,” Conrad said., In fact, Varner pointed out, Conrad had even walked the tracks and had done tests on them, and felt 100 percent confident in the safety of the train and the tracks.Conrad was on his eighth public trip around the tracks when the accident happened, he told reporters.Conrad said there was nothing to indicate that anything was wrong with the train or the tracks before the accident.”The first I knew anything was wrong was the back end of the locomotive swung out to the right, and I had just enough time to realize I was off the track, and think, ‘I hope we don’t go in that creek,’ when the engine started to tilt,” Conrad said. “And that’s the last I remember until I pulled myself up,” he said.”We strongly suspect this was a freak mechanical failure, not operator error,” Varner said.Conrad told reporters he was unprepared for the media attention he’s received since the wreck Saturday at Spartanburg’s Cleveland Park.”I recognized I was going to be an easy target for blame. I wasn’t prepared for what has happened,” he said.Benji Easler was killed and 27 other passengers injured when the nearly 60-year-old train derailed on a bridge. The boy’s funeral is planned for Thursday.Conrad said he talked to the boy’s father, Rev. Dwight Easler, on Wednesday. “He assured me that their family has no animosity toward me and he said he is praying with me,” Conrad said. “He prayed with me on the phone,” he said.”I remember after I had left the actual wreck scene and sat down elsewhere in the park, I was sitting there and I heard the first helicopter come in. I knew what that helicopter meant,” Conrad said. “I was scared to death,” he said.Authorities have not said what caused the crash and their investigation is continuing. Witnesses have said the train sped up during its third lap around the circuit.A report released by investigators on Tuesday included information from an officer who accompanied Conrad to the hospital. The officer reported Conrad said several times that he was going too fast.”One of the things that was said by the officer that was in the ambulance, he said I was visibly shaken or something of that nature. That’s the understatement of the millennium,” Conrad said. “I was hysterical,” he said.Conrad went on to say that speed was the only thing he could think of at the time that would have caused a wreck like that.”People have told me, everybody who has been involved in a horrific accident like that, initially blame themselves. And that’s what I did. I blamed myself,” Conrad said. He said he made the comment on speed because he was in shock.Varner said the top speed the locomotive was able to travel was 15 to 17 mph. “That speed is not excessive,” Varner said.On Wednesday, one of the families injured in the crash filed a lawsuit, accusing state and county officials of negligence.Conrad was responsible for the operation and maintenance of the train, and even reported on the steps he took to care for and repair the train on an Internet site called “Railway Preservation News,” a blog for railroad enthusiasts. Conrad’s attorneys described the blog as somewhat of a historical document.”It’s not meant to criticize the county. It’s not meant to criticize the manufacturer of the train, Grant Varner said.”I did everything I could to make that train safe,” Conrad said. “And if you read those maintenance blogs, I must’ve taken the plumbing on that last car apart two or three times, trying to get it up to my standards,” he said.Conrad sought legal counsel after rumors that criminal charges were a possibility in the aftermath of the deadly wreck, Varner said.
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