An ex-Conrail engineer sentenced to five years in prison for causing 16 deaths in Amtrak's worst accident might not have been high on marijuana at the time but deserves the maximum punishment, his judge said.

Rick L. Gates, 33, of Essex, Md., deserved the sentence for causing the "indescribable tragedy" that killed 16 people Jan. 4, 1987 near Chase, Md., Baltimore County Circuit Judge Joseph P. Murphy said Tuesday."He is fortunate that I am powerless to increase the sentence," Murphy said in sentencing Gates to five years and a $1,000 fine on one misdemeanor manslaughter count to which Gates pleaded guilty Feb. 16. under a plea bargain. Gates admitted in a statement of facts to smoking marijuana on the train and failing to make several safety checks that might have prevented him driving the three linked engines into the path of the Amtrak passenger train.

"I don't think any fair analysis can really result in the conclusion that he was stoned on marijuana at the time," Murphy said. "But what he did in terms of failure to follow procedures was to show us that he didn't give a damn. He just didn't care."

In the plea bargain, the 16 original misdemeanor charges of manslaughter by locomotive were consolidated into a single charge. The move reduced Gates' possible prison time from 80 years to five years.

"I would like you to know I accept full responsibility. I will never be able to forget," said Gates, who wept along with relatives of the dead as excerpts of five victim impact statements were read into the record.

"The violent death of our daughter Ceres is the most terrible event experienced by our family," Dr. Roger Horn wrote. "Our hearts were crushed along with hers."

Gates was taken into custody immediately after sentencing. He could be eligible for parole after serving about 18 months, said Sandra O'Connor, the chief prosecutor and Baltimore County State's Attorney.

Donna Shearer, Gates' public defender, said he has not had a drink since undergoing treatment and has tried to help other alcoholics.

Shearer said she was disappointed in the sentence but doubted that an appeal would be filed.