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‘Disastrous mess’: 6 dead, more than 100 injured after Amtrak train derails in Philadelphia

Posted at 10:21 PM, May 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-13 11:31:55-04

PHILADELPHIA — Fighting to save lives. Mourning the dead. And figuring out why this came to be — how an Amtrak train could suddenly derail, sending its cars and passengers flying.

That was the stark reality Wednesday, as relatives raced to the sides of their injured loved ones and rescue workers and investigators scoured the mangled wreckage of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 in Pennsylvania.

The train left Washington on Tuesday with 238 passengers and five crew members aboard, heading for New York. But it never made it, derailing around 9:30 that night in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia.

The crash killed six people, one of them a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman, according to a source close to the Annapolis, Maryland, school.

Hospitals have treated more than 200 people, about half of whom have been released. That figure includes eight in critical condition among the 25 wounded passengers at Temple University Hospital — the closest trauma center to the crash site — Herb Cushing, the hospital’s medical director, said Wednesday morning.

He said many passengers were injured when other passengers or objects fell on them. One of those hurt is the train’s conductor, who received medical treatment and has or soon will brief investigators, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said.

Authorities have not ruled out the possibility of more victims at the crash site.

“We are heartbroken by what we’ve experienced here,” Nutter said Wednesday morning. “We have not experienced anything like this in modern times.”

‘A lot of questions’

The miracle may be how some escaped relatively unscathed, given the severity of the derailment, which included the train’s engine and all seven cars.

A U.S. Department of Transportation representative told CNN on Wednesday that the engine and two cars were left standing upright, three cars were tipped on their sides, and one was nearly flipped over on its roof. The seventh one was “leaning hard.”

Seven investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were at the site by 10 a.m., and more are on the way, Nutter said. They have recovered a recorder (or “black box”) and have walked through the crash scene, but much more work remains to be done.

Among other things, authorities will examine the condition of the track and the train, how the signals operated and “human performance,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said.

Speed is one issue that investigators are seriously looking at in light of the angles of the wreckage and type of damage to the cars, according to an official with direct knowledge of the investigation. The speed limit in the crash area is around 50 mph.

So far, there’s nothing to indicate the incident was an act of terrorism. And Philadelphia’s mayor said there’s no indication that another train had anything to do with the derailment.

“You have a lot of questions, we have a lot of questions,” Sumwalt told reporters late Wednesday morning. “We intend to answer many of those questions in the next 24 to 48 hours.”

Phones, laptops, people sent flying

The Washington-New York corridor is the busiest stretch for Amtrak nationwide. Hundreds of trains, carrying thousands of passengers, have made that trip in recent years, most of them rolling seamlessly from start to finish on a roughly 3½-hour journey.

That’s what seemed to be happening Tuesday night, passenger Daniel Wetrin told CNN.

“Everything was normal,” he said. “Then it was just chaos.”

Jeremy Wladis was in the very last car, eating, when she noticed the train starting to do “funny things. And it gradually starts getting worse and worse.”

Things started flying — phones, laptops. “Then people.”

“There were two people in the luggage rack above my head. Two women, catapulted (there).”

As she read a book in the second-to-last car, Janna D’Ambrisi said, she “felt like we were going a little too fast around a curve. The car she was in started to tip, and she was thrown onto another girl.

“People started to fall on us,” D’Ambrisi said. “I just held on to her leg and sort of bowed my head and I was kind of praying, ‘Please make it stop.’ ”

Fortunately, her car didn’t tip over and she was able to make it out safely.

‘Heavily used stretch of track’

The area of the crash in Philadelphia, known as Frankford Junction, was the site of one of the nation’s deadliest train accidents; the Congressional Limited crash of 1943 killed 79 people.

“It’s an extremely heavily used stretch of track,” transportation analyst Matthew L. Wald said of the area. “They have trouble keeping it in a state of good repair.”

The derailment was Amtrak’s ninth this year alone, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, and while its cause has not yet been determined, some, like Wald, are already discussing the nation’s aging rail infrastructure.

Noting President Barack Obama’s commitment to upgrading the country’s infrastructure, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the Obama administration is “hard at work” trying to figure out what caused the crash, and that their thoughts and prayers are with the families of everyone effected.

Service between Philadelphia and New York City remained suspended Wednesday, according to Amtrak. Those seeking information about friends and family aboard the train can call an Amtrak hotline established for this incident: 1-800-523-9101.

CNN’s Sara Sidner, Rene Marsh contributed to this report from Philadelphia; Greg Botelho, Catherine E. Shoichet, Tony Marco, Janet DiGiacomo, Sam Stringer and Holly Yan contributed to this report.