CHESTER, Pa. (AP) — An Amtrak train struck a piece of heavy equipment just south of Philadelphia on Sunday, causing a derailment that killed two Amtrak workers and sent more than 30 passengers to hospitals, authorities said.
Train 89 was heading from New York to Savannah, Georgia, at about 8 a.m. when it hit the equipment that was on the track in Chester, about 15 miles outside Philadelphia, officials said. The impact derailed the lead engine of the train that was carrying more than 300 passengers and seven crew members.
Chester Fire Commissioner Travis Thomas said two people were killed. A National Transportation Safety Board official confirmed that one was the operator of the equipment. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Amtrak board Chairman Anthony Coscia told him the other person killed was a supervisor and both were Amtrak employees.
The Delaware County medical examiner’s office said no information would be released until after autopsies Monday.
NTSB investigator Ryan Frigo said at an evening news conference that the event data recorder and forward-facing and inward-facing video from the locomotive have been recovered.
He said the locomotive engineer was among those taken to hospitals. Officials said earlier that none of the injuries was deemed life-threatening.
Schumer said it’s unclear whether the equipment was being used for regular maintenance, which usually is scheduled on Sunday mornings because there are fewer trains on the tracks, or whether it was clearing debris from high winds in the area overnight. But he said Amtrak has “a 20-step protocol” for having such equipment, described by Amtrak as a backhoe, on the track, and no trains are supposed to go on a track when equipment is present.
“Clearly this seems very likely to be human error,” Schumer said, calling for Amtrak to review its processes. “There is virtually no excuse for a backhoe to be on an active track.”
An Amtrak spokeswoman said in an email to The Associated Press that any information about the type of equipment on the track and why the train was using that track would have to come from the NTSB. She said any information about the two people killed, including what company they worked for, would have to come from the Delaware County medical examiner.
The company was posting alerts on its website, however, with updates on its service.
Amtrak said service on the Northeast Corridor between New York and Philadelphia began operating after an earlier suspension and limited service was restored between Wilmington, Delaware, and Philadelphia by Sunday afternoon.
Amtrak said Sunday night that it will operate regularly scheduled trains Monday, although there may be some delays on Acela Express, Northeast Regional and other services between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware.
Frigo said he did not know why the equipment was on a track the train was using. He said scheduling, the track structure and the work that was being performed at the time of the accident would be part of the investigation. The event data recorder has been sent to the safety board’s laboratory in Washington and will answer such questions as how fast the train was going at the time of the crash, he said.
Ari Ne’eman, a disability rights activist heading to Washington after speaking at an event in New York, said he was in the second car at the time of the crash.
“The car started shaking wildly, there was a smell of smoke, it looked like there was a small fire and then the window across from us blew out,” said Ne’eman, 28, of Silver Spring, Maryland.
Some passengers started to get off after the train stopped, but the conductor quickly stopped them, he said. Officials began directing people to the rear of the train for evacuation and then to a nearby church.
“It was a very frightening experience. I’m frankly very glad that I was not on the first car,” where there were injuries, Ne’eman said. “The moment that the car stopped, I said Shema, a Jewish prayer. … I was just so thankful that the train had come to a stop and we were OK.”
Businessman Steve Forbes told C-SPAN’s “Book TV” by phone that he was in the next-to-last car when the train “made sudden jerks” as if it was about to make an abrupt stop.
Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media, said the train then made another abrupt stop and “everyone’s coffee was flying through the air.”
“The most disconcerting thing … (was) not knowing what had happened,” he said.
Since the public address system was knocked out, he and other passengers were left to speculate for 20 or 25 minutes before a crew member came back to tell them what had happened, he said.
On Sunday afternoon, an Amtrak train in Illinois struck a vehicle at a crossing, killing the driver. An Amtrak spokesman said none of the approximately 248 passengers or dozen crew members was hurt. The crash happened in Somonauk, about 65 miles southwest of Chicago.
The Pennsylvania derailment comes almost a year after an Amtrak train originating from Washington, D.C., bound for New York City derailed in Philadelphia. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured in the May 12 crash. The exact cause of that crash is still under investigation, but authorities have said the train had been traveling twice the speed limit.
Nearly three decades ago, an Amtrak train struck maintenance equipment on tracks in Chester, near the site of Sunday’s derailment. More than 20 people were injured in that January 1988 crash of Train 66, the Night Owl. The NTSB determined afterward that an Amtrak tower operator had failed to switch the train to an unoccupied track.
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