FBI is asked to investigate whether something hit doomed Amtrak train

FBI called into to aid investigation about object that may have hit Amtrak train 188

The National Transportation Safety Board has asked the FBI to examine window damage to determine whether an Amtrak train was hit by an object before it derailed in Philadelphia, the latest step after investigators on Friday questioned the engineer, who said he could not recall details of the crash.

Safety board member Robert Sumwalt said investigators asked the FBI to examine what appears to be circular damage in the left-hand lower portion of the Amtrak train’s windshield. No projectile was found inside the locomotive, he said.

An unnamed assistant conductor in the cafe car told investigators of a radio conversation she heard between Brandon Bostian, the engineer of the Amtrak train, and another engineer in a regional commuter train. The local engineer said the train had been “hit by a rock or shot at,” Sumwalt said. The unidentified assistant conductor told investigators that she thought she heard Bostian say his train had also been struck.

According to Andrew Busch, a spokesman for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), which operates the local trains, there was an incident involving a damaged windshield to one of its trains on Tuesday night, when the Amtrak derailment occurred.

“A SEPTA train was damaged by a projectile in a separate incident, but all of our indications is that this is not connected to the Amtrak incident,” said Busch, who described it as an act of vandalism. “Unfortunately it does happen occasionally that we get juveniles throwing rocks.”

There were no injuries, and the 80 passengers were transferred to buses. The incident is being investigated, he said.

While those onboard the SEPTA train sat waiting to hear more information, they saw the doomed Amtrak pass by, several passengers told the Los Angeles Times this week. SEPTA officials earlier this week said that the local train stopped about 2 or 3 miles from where the Amtrak train ultimately crashed.

SEPTA will make the engineer of its train available to NTSB investigators, Busch said.

Bostian, 32, was cooperative in his Friday interview, but he said he could not recall anything after ringing the train’s bell as it left the Philadelphia station, Sumwalt said. Bostian said he had no recollection of any discussion with another engineer or of the derailment, which killed eight people and injured more than 200.

Investigators are continuing to look for answers about the cause of the crash and especially why the Amtrak train increased speed in the last minute before it derailed. It left Philadelphia on time heading for New York when it began to pick up speed to more than 100 mph as it headed into a curve with a 50-mph speed limit in an area known as Frankford Junction.

The interview with Bostian, of Queens, N.Y., was an important step in the investigation because he was the only person in the locomotive cab as the train accelerated. Robert Goggin, Bostian’s lawyer, also attended the interview. He said this week that the engineer had been injured in the crash and had limited memory of the accident.

“We’ve interviewed three crew members,” Sumwalt said, adding that they were traumatized by the accident and may not have completely recovered. The train’s conductor remains hospitalized, Sumwalt said.

Bostian tried to be helpful, even offering to meet again. “Investigators found the engineer to be extremely cooperative,” Sumwalt said.

Bostian said he was not tired or ill on the day of the derailment. “He felt fully qualified and comfortable with his equipment,” Sumwalt said. “He demonstrated good working knowledge of the territory.”

Sumwalt said the interviews with the crew were important steps, but noted that investigators were still gathering evidence.

“We do not draw conclusions at this stage of the investigation,” Sumwalt said. “We will draw conclusions later.”

Officials have focused on the train’s acceleration leaving Philadelphia. An analysis of the train data recorder and a camera set up in the locomotive showed the train rapidly and steadily increased its speed in the last 65 seconds before the crash.

Sumwalt said Thursday that the train was traveling above 70 mph at 65 seconds before impact. At 43 seconds before impact, it exceeded 80 mph. At 31 seconds, it had increased to 90 mph. Sixteen seconds before impact, it topped 100.

The speed limit before the curve is 80 mph, but drops to 50 going into the turn.

Amtrak train 188, carrying 243 passengers and crew members, originated in Washington and was traveling on the Northeast corridor, Amtrak's busiest.

All aboard have been accounted for. Six people remain in critical condition, hospital officials said Friday, and all are expected to recover.

The idea of a rock being thrown first came up the night of the crash. Minutes before the Amtrak train derailed at 9:21 p.m. Tuesday, two other trains had windows broken from possibly thrown objects in the same area and around the same time of the crash, according to passengers interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

Shortly before the Amtrak derailed, an Acela train -- an Amtrak express train -- headed from New York to Washington suffered a broken window on the left side about five to 10 minutes before reaching the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, said passenger Madison Calvert, 29, of Washington, a vice president of sales at a software company. Calvert, who was sitting near the broken window, said it “shattered” probably sometime between 9:05 and 9:12 p.m.

“Did a kid chuck a rock at it?” Calvert said he wondered. When the train reached 30th Street Station, roughly 8 miles southwest from where the Amtrak would crash minutes later, he texted his wife at 9:18 p.m. to tell her about the broken window; he also sent a photo of the damage on Twitter.

Near the same time, the SEPTA train stopped on its tracks about two or three miles from where the Amtrak train would crash because of a broken window caused by an unknown object shortly before 9:15 p.m., according to two passengers and SEPTA officials.

Alfred Price, a 32-year-old documentary filmmaker who lives in northeast Philadelphia, was sitting about three rows behind the conductor’s booth when he heard a “loud bang” that “sounded to me like a mini explosion,” he said in a phone interview.

The SEPTA train then rolled to a stop, and train officials made “a pretty startling announcement that an object had gone through the window” and that “the engineer was covered in glass,” said another SEPTA passenger, Scott Knowles, an associate professor of history at Drexel University.

Both Knowles and Price said they saw the Amtrak train pass by, shortly before it crashed.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the last of the wrecked cars were removed from the scene and a funeral was held in Long Island, N.Y., for one of the passengers killed in the crash.

Midshipman Justin Zemser, 20, who was traveling from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., to his home in Rockaway Beach in Queens, was “a phenomenal young man” who “had this quiet strength about him,” said Capt. Brandy Soublet, the academy’s commandant of midshipmen.

Amtrak has taken responsibility for the crash. In a letter posted on the rail line’s website, Joseph Boardman, Amtrak's president and chief executive, said the railroad was cooperating fully in the investigation.

“With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities,” Boardman wrote. “Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event.”

He said the railroad's goal was “to fully understand what happened and how we can prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future.”

Amtrak is hoping to resume partial service on Monday and full service by Tuesday.

At the crash site, the train ripped up rails and knocked down power lines. Workers on Friday were beginning to drill holes for new utility poles and preparing to pour concrete. The last of the seven passenger cars was hauled away on a flatbed truck to an Amtrak facility in Delaware for further study.

Litigation stemming from the wreck began on Thursday.

Bruce Phillips, an Amtrak employee who was heading to New York City as a passenger in one of the rear cars, sued the railroad, claiming he sustained injuries including trauma to the brain. The suit seeks more than $150,000 in damages.

Bostian has been an Amtrak engineer for four years and six months, and before that was an Amtrak passenger conductor from 2006 to 2010, according to a LinkedIn profile under his name.

A few hours after the crash, Bostian changed his Facebook profile picture to a black rectangle as friends posted messages of support. The engineer’s hometown was listed as Memphis, Tenn.

Bostian attended the University of Missouri in Columbia, where his LinkedIn profile said he attained a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management. He was also a member of Acacia, a service fraternity, and in recent years was lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights advocate while living in San Francisco and New York City, according to a news article.

Goggin said he believed part of Bostian’s memory loss was due to his concussion.

“I can tell you he was distraught when he learned of the devastation,” Goggin said. “He was distraught.”

Times staff writers Kurtis Lee and Matt Pearce contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


7:29 p.m.: This post was revised throughout for additional details and for clarity. 

6:19 p.m.: This post was updated with additional details.

3:33 p.m.: This post was updated with new information.

3:04 p.m.: This post was updated with new information about the investigation.

This post was originally published at 10:04 a.m.