An Amtrak train, going at more than the twice the speed limit as it entered a curve, derailed on Tuesday night, killing seven people and injuring more than 200.
Federal 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, the New York Times reports.
Survivors described a chaotic scene: passengers were thrown against walls and windows and luggage and other loose items fell on riders. By Thursday morning, some passengers still had not been accounted for, the Times reports. Investigators say it is too early to know whether speed alone caused the wreck. In addition to the train’s speed, investigators are examining such factors as track conditions, throttle and brake settings and alarms in the engineer’s cab. They are examining video from a camera mounted on the locomotive.
Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train No. 188 was traveling from Washington to New York carrying 238 passengers and a five-member crew when it jumped the tracks shortly before 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, coming into a sharp left turn not far from the site of a 1943 derailment that killed 79 people, according to the Times. Robert Sumwalt, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official who was 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.”
The crash occurred on a stretch of the Northeast Corridor – the heavily traveled Washington-to-Boston route – that did not have the safety system known as positive train control, which can automatically slow or stop a train in a curve or other situations. In a news conference, Mr. 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.” Safety experts said Amtrak locomotives have multiple systems to alert train operators to excess speed, with warning lights and sound alarms. Investigators do not yet know whether those systems had worked, Sumwalt said.
Surviving passengers – including former congressman, Patrick Murphy – said the train seemed to soar through the air before the locomotive and cars landed in a twisted, mangled wreck. Some passengers called 911, including a pregnant woman who used her phone’s GPS to direct emergency personnel to the scene.
Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter said that the search area had been widened because authorities fear some of the missing passengers may have been ejected from the train. Dozens of passengers were taken to area hospitals. The Times reports that at least eight people were critically injured. The dead include a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy; a video software architect from Plainsboro, N.J., 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.
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