News & Politics

Amtrak Philadelphia Train Crash: Mayor Describes 'Disastrous Mess'

FBI says no indication that terrorism was a factor in Philadelphia derailment that killed at least six and left another six critically injured.

Photo Credit: via YouTube

A crash investigation has begun into what caused an Amtrak train to derail in north Philadelphia, killing at least five people and leaving six others critically injured.

A sixth person was declared dead by Herb Cushing, medical director of Temple University hospital in Philadelphia, where several of the injured were taken, according to local television news reports. During the night the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, had confirmed that five people had died in the crash.

Federal investigators arrived on the scene of the mangled and overturned cars on Wednesday morning to try to establish the cause of the crash.

The Northeast Regional 188 service was carrying 243 people, including five crew,when it went off the rails between Washington DC and New York city shortly after 9pm local time. The front of the train was going into a long curve when it started to shake, according to passengers.

The carriages lay several yards from the rails in the dark in a twisted chain of wreckage, as passengers desperately struggled to get out.

Nutter described the scene as a “disastrous mess” and said some of the passengers had not been accounted for.

“It is an absolute disastrous mess,” Nutter said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”

He said all seven train carriages, including the engine, were in “various stages of disarray”. He said there were some that were “completely overturned, on their side, ripped apart”. The engine was completely separated from the rest of the train, and one of the carriages was perpendicular to the rest, he said.

Six people were in a critical condition, he said. Hospital figures showed that 136 of the survivors were taken to hospital. Others stood next to the tracks, hugging each other, staring in shock or using their phones.

Several passengers were trapped and firefighters had to use hydraulic tools to get them out, according to officials. A secondary search was under way for anyone else still inside the wreckage.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it had launched a “go-team” to investigate and would not speculate on the causes.

The FBI said there was no indication that terrorism could have been a factor.

“We do not know what happened here. We do not know why this happened,” Nutter told reporters.

Emergency personnel fear there are still casualties trapped under at least one of the carriages, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Wednesday morning, quoting a source familiar with the search-and-rescue operation. A crane has been brought in to lift the most badly damaged train cars, where bodies could be crushed or survivors still trapped.

The derailment occurred at 9.30pm, leaving carriages ripped open and overturned or on their sides along the Delaware river. 

He confirmed the train derailed on a curved stretch of track, adding: “We have no idea what kind of speed we’re talking about.”

Slate pointed out that the same stretch of track was the scene of one of America’s worst rail disasters in 1943, when 79 people were killed.

Survivors on Wednesday described scenes of horror and chaos, and TV footage showed dozens of emergency workers scrambling around the wreckage.

Former Pennsylvania congressman Patrick Murphy, who was a passenger on the train, said the cafe car he was travelling in flipped over, but he escaped with minor cuts and bruises.

He estimated that the train was travelling at about 60 or 70 miles an hour when “all of a sudden, it went off the rails”.

He tweeted photos of some of those injured in the wreckage.

He posted a picture of emergency personnel trying frantically to extricate people from the wreckage and guide those who could move out of the damaged carriages.

“There was a lot of mayhem. A lot of blood, a lot of bleeding. I pulled myself up. The guy who I kind of landed on was OK. The guy next to him was completely passed out, knocked unconscious. People were pretty banged up,” he told the local ABC TVnews station.

He said there was a very loud bang and the train wobbled from side to side.

A local man inside the train took raw cellphone video footage of rescue efforts in which, inside the darkened carriage, first responders could be heard telling people to crawl through the wreckage to safety. Trapped passengers can be heard groaning and crying.

Voices can be heard encouraging those trying to escape, saying: “Crawl forward” and “Come on, man” as a man tries to wriggle through a gap in twisted metal.

One carriage was reported completely upside down with its wheels in the air and aerial shots from news helicopters showed the engine car separated from the other carriages and crumpled on its side.

Passenger Daniel Wetrin, who was in the last carriage, told CNN he was thrown to the floor and into the aisle as his carriage left the tracks. “Chairs were flying around, people were flying, bags, pretty chaotic,” he said. “There were two people above our heads in the luggage rack.

Paul Cheung, an Associated Press manager who was on the train, said it “started to decelerate, like someone had slammed the brake”.

“Then suddenly you could see everything starting to shake,” he said. “You could see people’s stuff flying over me.”

Another passenger, Daniel Wetrin, was among more than a dozen people taken to a nearby school.

“I walked off as if, like, I was in a movie,” Wetrin said. “There were people standing around, people with bloody faces … power cables all buckled down as you stepped off the train.”

Tom Wolf, the Pennsylvania governor, arrived on the scene in the early hours of Wednesday morning. “Anything that the state can do, we stand ready to do that,” he said.

Amtrak issued a statement saying the company was “deeply saddened by the loss of life from Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188”.

“Amtrak has also established a family assistance centre to work closely with family and friends of individuals on the train,” it added.

Northeast Corridor services between New York and Philadelphia remained suspended and a service plan for Wednesday would be announced later, Amtrak said.

The crash was the latest in a series of rail accidents on heavily used passenger train routes over the past year.

Another Amtrak train crashed on Sunday. That train, bound for New Orleans, struck a truck at a railway crossing in Amite, killing the truck’s driver and injuring two people on the train.

In March, at least 55 people were injured when an Amtrak train collided with a tractor-trailer that was stuck on the tracks in North Carolina.

In the same month, 21 people were injured in Los Angeles when a commuter train struck a car that turned in front of it, a month after 50 people were hurt and an engineer fatally injured when a Los Angeles-bound Metrolink train struck a pickup truck.

In February, six people were killed and a dozen injured when the Metro North commuter train they were riding in north of New York City hit a car stalled on the tracks during rush hour. The driver of the vehicle also died.

The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, called for increased investment in transportation infrastructure, saying the US fell far behind Europe and countries such as China in making such spending a priority. He said the public would be willing to pay a little more in taxes to fund it and the federal government also needed to put in more money.

He told MSNBC on Wednesday morning: “This country has to invest in infrastructure like other countries do … If we do not get more federal support there is no way we can get the services that we want and it needs to become a priority because it has an impact on the economy. I hear it from business leaders all the time, we are not going to be able to create the jobs without the infrastructure to accompany it,” he said.

• Those trying to locate passengers on the train are being told to call the Amtrak hotline: 1 800 523 9101. People in Philadelphia can do so in person by going to Webster Elementary school on 3400 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia.


Joanna Walters is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @Joannawalters13.

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