An Amtrak train traveling more than the twice the speed limit as it entered a sharp curve, derailed on Tuesday night in Philadelphia. Seven people were killed and more than 200 were injured, with some passengers still unaccounted for as of Thursday morning.
Northeast Regional Train No. 188 was traveling from Washington DC to New York, carrying 238 passengers and a five-member crew, when it jumped the tracks shortly before 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. The accident came not far from the site of a 1943 derailment that killed 79 people, the New York Times reports.
Federal transportation authorities say the engineer reportedly jammed on the emergency brakes seconds before the derailment, but the train slowed only slightly from its 106 mile an hour speed, according to the Times. Officials estimate that the train was going about 102 m.p.h. when it left the tracks. Robert Sumwalt, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official sent to lead the investigation, said, “As we know, it takes a long time to decelerate a train.” Sumwalt added, “You’re supposed to enter the curve at 50 miles per hour. He was already in the curve.”
Survivors described a terrifying and chaotic scene, with passengers thrown against walls, windows and each other, and luggage, laptops, and other objects falling on them. Some passengers still have not been accounted for, the Times reports, and Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter said the search area had been widened because of fears that passengers may have been thrown from the train.
Investigators say it is too early to know whether speed alone was responsible for the crash. In addition to speed, investigators are looking at track conditions, throttle and brake settings and alarms in the engineer’s cab. They are also examining video from a camera mounted on the locomotive
The crash occurred on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor between Washington DC and Boston. The stretch where the derailment occurred does not have the positive train control safety system that all passenger trains will be required to have by the end of this year. Positive train control continuously monitors conditions and can automatically slow or stop a train where conditions warrant. Sumwalt said positive train control could have prevented the crash. “Based on what we know right now,” he said at a news conference, “we feel that had such a system been installed on this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.” Amtrak locomotives already have multiple systems to alert operators to excess speed, but investigators do not know if those systems had worked at the time of the crash, according to the Times.
Surviving passengers include former Pennsylvania congressman, Patrick Murphy, who said the train seemed to soar through the air before it landed, its cars twisted and mangled. A number of passengers called 911, and a pregnant woman used her phone’s GPS to direct responders to the site.
Dozens of passengers were taken to area hospitals. Some injuries were minor, but the Times reports that at least eight people were critically injured. Among those who died are a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy; a video software architect from New Jersey who worked for The Associated Press; the chief executive of an education technology company in Philadelphia; a senior vice president of Wells Fargo; and a dean at Medgar Evers College in New York.