NATION

Engineer in Philadelphia Amtrak derailment has only a vague memory of the crash

Three days after a passenger train derailed in Philadelphia last year, investigators met with a groggy, banged-up Amtrak engineer who had become the center of a great mystery.

Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured on May 12 when Amtrak train No. 188 -- headed from Washington to New York -- suddenly tumbled from its rails while speeding through a 50-mph curve at 106 mph.

It was one of America’s deadliest train crashes in years. Passenger cars crumpled like soda cans as sparks showered around the train. Passengers slammed into windows, ceilings and chairs.

But engineer Brandon Bostian didn’t remember any of it, according to investigative documents released Monday that include transcripts of his meetings with investigators.

“The last memory I have,” Bostian, 32, told crash investigators, “is approaching and passing the platforms in North Philadelphia. ... The next thing that I remember is, when I came to my senses, I was standing up in the locomotive cab after the accident.”

In a second interview, six months later, Bostian said that “a couple of prominent scenes” from the crash had since come back to him.

“I hesitate to use the word 'dreamlike' because it sounds like I was asleep, and I don’t believe that I was asleep at all,” he told an interviewer.

“I remember feeling my body lurch to the right, towards the right side of the engine. I remember feeling as though I was going too fast around a curve. In response to that feeling, I put the train brake on, made about a 10-pound application of the brake.... The train felt, the engine felt, as though it were tilting over,” he said.

But Bostian, who suffered a concussion and other injuries during the crash, warned: “I couldn’t say with certainty that my memory is accurate.”

The more than 2,000 pages of documents released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board includes photographs, interviews and data that investigators will now use to diagnose the official cause of the crash.

“No conclusions about how or why an accident occurred should be drawn from the docket,” the board warned in a statement about the documents, declining to make further comment.

Observers, however, have zeroed in on two crucial elements that allowed the crash to happen.

The NTSB has previously said an automated safety system known as positive train control could have prevented the disaster, but it was not installed on the stretch of track where the train derailed.

The second potential factor is Bostian himself, who officials said put the train’s accelerator at “full throttle” almost a minute before hitting the turn in North Philadelphia at more than 50 mph over the curve’s speed limit.

“A second qualified engine service employee in the operating compartment … would have undoubtedly prevented this accident,” the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union said in a suggested probable-cause finding to the NTSB.

But why did he do it? Investigators seem to have found few if any clues that Bostian was in some way distracted, intoxicated or otherwise unfit for duty.

Bostian’s phone had been turned off since he steered the train out of Washington, records show. Tests found he had no drugs or alcohol in his system, and he was generally in physical good health, according to a company physical he had a few weeks before the crash.

Bostian got an average of six to eight hours of sleep each night before work, and neurologists and cardiologists found no underlying conditions.

Bostian was also a lifelong rail enthusiast and a safety advocate who came highly praised by his peers and co-workers – including those who were riding on the train that crashed.

“[He] is great,” an assistant conductor told investigators. “He knows his job. He’s there on time for the briefing. He answers any questions we have…. I’ve never seen him do anything that he wasn’t supposed to do....  He was a very good engineer.”

“I was actually really happy with him, because I found him to be involved in the briefing process,” another assistant conductor said. “Plus, I thought he was really communicative on the radio. Like I could always understand what he was saying and I could – he always responded to everything that was said to him.”

Emilio Fonseca, a conductor on the train who spent 10 days in the hospital for the injuries he suffered, told investigators Bostian was “very on top of his game” in terms of his knowledge.

“I would ask him questions; he would always know the answer,” Fonseca said. “As far as his knowledge went, I had no reason to doubt him at all. I felt he was very knowledgeable in the territory, and he loved his job.”

Joseph Brennan, an Amtrak train dispatcher who was riding the train, said he found an injured Bostian outside the train right after the crash.

“He told me he was the engineer,” Brennan told investigators. “He told me his name. I asked him, I said, ‘What happened?’ And he just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know.’"

Twitter: @MattDPearce

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