Residents living along the stretch of Frankford Avenue near the railroad tracks are used to the whoosh and clatter of trains rounding a nearby curve, and Amtrak’s train 188 didn’t sound unusual to locals enjoying the warm night air or to riders settled into their seats. Suddenly, there was a thunderous bang, a flash of light in the night sky, and the horrible realization for more than 200 train passengers that something terrible was happening.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Jeff Kutler, who was in the quiet car when he heard a thud shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Lori Dee Patterson was on her porch a few hundred feet away, unable to see the tracks but able to hear the impact. “I thought it was a bomb,” she said.
Kutler, a financial journalist returning home to New York from Washington, felt the train lift into the air before it slammed back down, with its seven passenger cars and locomotive thrown off the tracks. Passengers were tossed like clothes in a dryer, arms flailing, and ended up in a tangle of metal luggage racks, broken seats and fellow riders. When it was over, at least seven people lay mortally wounded, scores were hurt, and investigators were left to determine why the train was traveling 106 mph in a curve zoned for 50.
On Wednesday evening, rescue workers still were trying to trace all of the people listed on Amtrak’s manifest, which included 238 passengers and five crew members.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he could not say how many people were missing. Some may never have boarded the Northeast Regional train, which left Washington’s Union Station a bit later than its scheduled 7:10 p.m. departure time.
“We are heartbroken here,” Nutter said.
One of the dead, Jim Gaines, lived in New Jersey, where he worked for the Associated Press. Another victim was Justin Zemser, a sophomore at the Naval Academy in Maryland who was on his way home to New York City. Wells Fargo confirmed that one of its New York employees, Abid Gilani, also was killed. And Medgar Evers College in New York said Derrick Griffith, 42, dean of student affairs and enrollment management, had died in the crash.
Medical officials said the wounded spanned several states and countries. At least eight were in critical condition at Temple University Hospital, and almost all of the 23 patients there had broken ribs, a sign of the force with which they were thrown.
“I was surprised at the number of rib injuries,” said Dr. Herbert Cushing, Temple’s chief medical officer. “And I think we’re fortunate there were not more deaths.”
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash site early Wednesday and retrieved the train’s data recorder. At a news conference, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said preliminary data showed the train was barreling down the track at 106 mph at 9:21 p.m. as it entered the left-turning curve. The engineer activated an emergency brake system, Sumwalt said, but it was too late. Three seconds later, its speed reduced only to 102 mph, the train flew off the tracks.
The derailment was sure to revive demands for nationwide use of a technology known as positive train control, which is designed to slow or stop trains before accidents. The northbound Amtrak rail was not equipped with the system. An official with the Federal Railroad Administration said the southbound track is equipped with positive train control.
“We feel, based on what we know now, that had such a system been installed in the section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” Sumwalt said.
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated that all of the nation’s passenger and freight trains should be equipped with positive train control by the end of 2015, but the industry will not meet that deadline. The law passed in the aftermath of the 2008 Chatsworth Metrolink rail accident, which killed 25 people and was blamed on crew error.
The Philadelphia crash is not far from the site of the nation’s deadliest train accident, a 1943 derailment of a Washington-to-New York train that killed 79 people.
Tuesday’s accident and the element of speed revived memories of a December 2013 derailment of a Metro-North commuter train in New York City that killed four passengers. The NTSB determined in that case that the train rounded a curve at 82 mph when it should have been going 30 mph. It said the train’s engineer had dozed off and blamed the railroad in part for failing to diagnose a sleep disorder.
Sumwalt said investigators had not yet spoken with the Amtrak train’s engineer. In addition to speaking with the train’s crew, he said, investigators would examine the engineer’s record and study the rail tracks.
As details of the train’s speed came to light, the stories of survival seemed all the more miraculous.
“Stuff started flying: laptops, notebooks — regular notebooks — cellphones, purses, you name it; coats, and even two women were catapulted right above us, right above where I was sitting, in the luggage rack,” said Jeremy S. Wladis, a restaurateur who runs the AG Pizza and Fuel Kitchen franchises.
“I was squished between the window and my seat — the seats were turned, twisted; trays were bent. It was just chaos.”
Some riders, like Wladis and Patrick Murphy, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, described a shaking before the train left the tracks.
Murphy was in the cafe car, he said in a phone interview, when it started vibrating violently.
The server who had been standing behind the counter was “pushed back and forth like a pinball,” and Murphy, a 200-pound Iraq war veteran, was thrown into the air as well.
Neither Murphy nor Wladis, nor Kutler, the financial journalist in the quiet car, said they noticed anything amiss such as excessive speed before the crash. Unlike a commuter train, though, where riders learn the usual sounds and movements of the carriages, the Northeast Regional is not the type of train most people ride on a daily basis.
“I wasn’t aware of anything unusual,” said Kutler, who returned to the crash scene on Wednesday afternoon. After an initial “thud,” he said, the routine ride turned chaotic. “It almost felt as if the car was lifting into the air,” he said.
The impact of the crash shook nearby homes and sent a bright lightning-like flash into the sky.
Suddenly, the window that had been at Kutler’s side, offering him a twilight view, was at his feet. His car was on its side. Kutler compared it to being stuffed into a closet and struggling to escape through a tangle of items thrown every which way.
The train cars came to rest in incoherent disarray, with a front car practically disintegrated and the last car still largely intact and upright, albeit tilted at a 30-degree angle like a listing battleship.
In the darkened cars, survivors took stock of their bumped heads and broken bones.
Was I in one piece? was Kutler’s first thought.
He was, but he had a large red welt on his head and an aching leg.
In the cafe car, Murphy checked his arms and legs. “They were there. They were working,” he said.
One man, who was bleeding from his nose, ears and head, was screaming, “We’re going to die!” Murphy recalled, adding, “He was kind of flipping out.”
Within minutes, first responders arrived and began evacuating people.
Despite the failure to have a system at the junction designed to prevent human error, Amtrak has improved its safety record over the last 10 years. Accidents measured per mile of travel dropped by more than half over the decade, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. Nonetheless, there is a significant problem with aging equipment on the rail line, which has struggled with federal funding cutbacks as ridership has jumped.
While many of its cross-country rural routes have struggled, Amtrak’s ridership on the Northeast corridor reached a record 11.6 million last year, the railroad said. The track where the accident occurred is also used by the high-speed Acela Express, which also set a ridership record in 2014.
Susman reported from Philadelphia, Bierman from Washington and Vartabedian from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.