LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

NJ Man Among the Dead in Amtrak Train Derailment

BY Mary Alice Williams, Anchor |

In the grim aftermath of that ghastly Amtrak derailment, here’s what we know. At least seven people died on Amtrak regional train 188 last night. Some 200 people have been treated for injuries. Investigators have recovered the black box that recorded the final seconds before a train trip home ended in chaos.

The hardest part started at dawn — identifying the dead, treating the injured and determining the cause. Two hundred thirty-eight passengers and five crew members were on board just out of Philadelphia when the train hit a notorious curve of track. Early information suggests that the train may have been traveling at 100 miles per hour into a 50 mile per hour bend. All seven train cars flew from the rails and plunged into darkness in an industrial area known as Frankford Junction — a spot where, 72 years ago, one of history’s worst train wrecks took the lives of 79 people. The force of the fall mangled one car completely, hurling passengers against walls and each other as bolted seats lost their moorings and crashed through the cars. The Associated Press‘s award-winning video software architect Jim Gaines was on his way home to Plainsboro where his two children waited. He died. Some are still unaccounted for.

“If you were on the train and are doing well, please call in and report that to Amtrak so we can link that data together,” said Philadelphia Director of Emergency Services Sam Phillips.

Phillips headed virtual squadrons of first responders who pulled passengers through windows of the toppled cars in the dim glow of flashlights. Some were able to walk. Area hospitals say they treated victims for burns, contusions, broken bones, lacerations and head trauma. Some remain in critical condition. Some — inexplicably — made it to safety with barely a scratch. And scarcely a clue as to how it happened.

“No, it happened in seconds so I don’t what happened. I have no idea, but I’m OK and I’m praying that everyone else is. I don’t have a scrape at all,” said one crash survivor.

While the urgent rescue and recovery was still underway, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board began it’s work.

“Our purpose for being here on-site is to collect the perishable evidence, the information that will go away with the passage of time. So we’re going to go and very methodically start collecting information: what was the what was the train speed, what was the speed limit on that curve? That’s part of our investigation is to very carefully document that,” said NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt. “We’ve brought a multidisciplinary team in here that will be covering a number of issues. We’re looking at the track, the train signals, the operation of the train, the mechanical condition of the train, human performance.”

It could be as long as a year before the cause of this catastrophe is clear.

The commute along the most heavily traveled corridor in the country is crucial to the economy. New Jersey Transit‘s Jennifer Nelson spoke with Williams about how NJ Transit is helping during this ongoing investigation and about how commuters have been affected.

“Right now we have a suspension of service on our Atlantic City rail line between Cherry Hill and Philadelphia and we’re providing bus service for those customers between those locations. Effective immediately New Jersey Transit now has special shuttle bus service in place meeting all trains coming into SEPTA‘s West Trenton Station. The shuttles are transporting passengers from West Trenton to the Trenton Transit Center. We’re also, in order to accommodate the Amtrak customers, we’re cross honoring Amtrak tickets and SEPTA tickets on all southern district buses south of I-195, the River Line Service between Camden and Trenton and the new shuttle bust service between West Trenton and Trenton and we’ll continue to honor Amtrak tickets between New York City and Trenton as well, and that’s for the foreseeable future,” she said.

But how long is the foreseeable future? Nelson says it’s hard to say as many questions have yet to be answered in the ongoing investigation.

“It’s very difficult to say that at this point as it’s an ongoing investigation. We’ve reached out to Amtrak to express our support to them and we’ll assist them in any way that we can. We’re going to continue to cross honor for as long as need be,” she said.

The Northeast Corridor tracks are rented from Amtrak, but Nelson says the line’s service hasn’t been affected.

“It hasn’t impacted our service other than on the Atlantic City rail line. Our Northeast Corridor are continuing to take passengers from New York City to Trenton. We haven’t been able to go further south than Trenton. Trenton is our terminus point right now,” Nelson said.

The Lincoln and Holland Tunnels experienced heavier traffic than usual this morning due to commuters taking buses and their own cars. When asked if she thinks that’s going to dissipate Nelson says it’s difficult to say.

“We did see an uptick in our ridership in both buses and rail today, which we anticipated given the fact that we’re cross honoring. I think just in general people were taking to their cars because of some of the uncertainly early in the morning,” she said. “I think that now we have a good system in place where we’re cross honoring and we’ve provided some additional service where we can so hopefully that will dissipate, but it’s difficult to say at this time.”