Amtrak Crash Survivors Recount 'Awful' Moments


by Chris Mcgreal, The Guardian, May 14, 2015

A few of the passengers sensed the speed was too high. But they barely had time to register its implications before the driver of the Amtrak train, just 11 minutes out of Philadelphia, reached for the emergency brake. Three seconds later, the engine had slowed just a fraction as the rails began their curve to the left.

The first jolt was followed by another, and then a wave of bone-shaking vibration. By now all the passengers on Northeast Regional train 118, running along the busiest rail corridor in the US, knew something was terribly wrong.

The train was still hurtling at more than 100 mph, more than twice the limit for the curve, as the force of the speed drove 97 tonnes of locomotive straight ahead and off the tracks. The engine bumped over the rails and down an embankment. The carriages immediately behind lifted into the air, then twisted on to their sides as they were dragged bumping along the ground.

Many of the 238 passengers and five crew were flung about the carriages, to the sound of ripping metal. Computers and phones flew around, smashing into people. Seats were torn from their fittings.

Related: Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia kills at least six people – in pictures

Those in the front carriages had it the worst. Jillian Jorgensen, 27, was in the second one behind the engine. She told the Associated Press the train was going “fast enough for me to be worried”. When it came off the tracks, she was thrown out of her seat and “flew across the train”.

“It was terrifying and awful, and as it was happening it just did not feel like the kind of thing you could walk away from, so I feel very lucky,” she said. “The scene in the car I was in was total disarray and people were clearly in a great deal of pain.”

Some people got jammed in the luggage rack as the train tossed to one side. Others were trapped by the crumpled metalwork.

“My mother flew into me and I literally had to catch her,” Max Helfman, a 19-year-old from New Jersey, told NBC News. “People were bleeding from their head. It was awful ... I’m still shocked this even happened.”


Emergency personnel help a passenger at the scene of the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Emergency personnel help a passenger at the scene of the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia on Tuesday. Photograph: Joseph Kaczmarek/AP

The locomotive came to rest upright, stopped by another set of railway tracks which buckled into an arc as they absorbed the force. By then it was separated from the carriages. The one closest to the front was mangled; it is likely to be where most of the at least seven who died were sitting. Some other passengers are still not accounted for.

The dead included Rachel Jacobs, who was travelling home from her new job in Philadelphia as chief executive of an educational software start-up; Jim Gaines, a video software architect for the Associated Press; and Justin Zemser, a student at the US naval academy.

By the time the train came to a halt, the lights had gone out. It was close to 9.30pm and dark. Some who had managed to hold on to their phones used them as torches as the scramble to get out began.

The survivors emerged with broken ribs, punctured lungs and head injuries, overwhelmed by shock. Some were carried out unconscious and laid next to the tracks. When they came to, they had little idea what had happened.

“I don’t remember anything,” Rebecca Bibb told CNN. “I did not hear any noise, did not see anything. When I started hearing people, I was on the side [of the crash scene], and someone told me I’d been delirious and that they had carried me off.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was on the scene within hours. One of its investigators, Robert Sumwalt, said the team would be looking at the track, the signals, the brakes and the mechanical condition of the train. But the most immediate questions were for the driver, Brandon Bostian, who survived the crash.

Sumwalt said the train had been travelling at 106mph as it approached the curve. The speed limit on the straight piece of track in the lead-up to the bend is 80mph, and the engine was supposed to have slowed to 50mph by the time it entered the curve. Instead it was down to just 102mph after Bostian hit the emergency brake in a futile effort to stop an engine that at that speed takes close to a mile to come to a halt.

Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, was shocked on being told of the speed of the train, calling it “astounding, devastating”.

“One-hundred six miles per hour in a 50mph zone ... that’s just insane,” he said.

The NTSB will want to know if the driver was distracted or sick as the train accelerated far beyond the speed limit and approached the curve without any attempt to slow until the very last seconds.

Related: Amtrak crash wreaks havoc on travel in north-east

Bostian, perhaps sensing the shadow of a lynch mob after Nutter accused him of being “reckless and irresponsible in his actions” before the investigation had barely begun, declined to give the police a formal statement until he had a lawyer. CNN pronounced that he was being “uncooperative” with the authorities and hinted it was evidence of guilt.

Amtrak crash: doctor says many passengers still disoriented.

But once Bostian had a lawyer, the attorney, Robert Goggin, said the 32-year-old New York resident was doing his best to cooperate but was injured in the crash, suffering head and leg injuries, and had trouble remembering.

“He remembers driving the train, he remembers going to that area generally, has absolutely no recollection of the incident or anything unusual,” Goggin told ABC. “The next thing he recalls is being thrown around, coming to, finding his bag, getting his cellphone and dialing 911.”

Goggin said Bostian was distraught at the news that people were killed.

Although the police pressed for an immediate statement, Sumwalt said Bostian had just survived a terrible crash and the NTSB could wait a few days to talk to him.

“This person has gone through a very traumatic event and we want to give him an opportunity to convalesce for a day or two,” he said. “But that is certainly a very high priority for us.”

There were also questions about whether others bear some responsibility, after Sumwalt said the accident could probably have been prevented by a safety system which prevents trains from speeding but which has yet to be installed on the part of the line where the derailment occurred.

“Based on what we know right now we feel that had such a system been installed on this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” he said.

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This article was written by Chris Mcgreal from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.