An Amtrak train struck a piece of construction equipment just south of Philadelphia Sunday morning, leaving two Amtrak employees dead and nearly three dozen passengers hurt.
Around 7:50 a.m., passengers aboard Amtrak's Palmetto Train 89 felt a jolt as the train slammed into a backhoe on the tracks between Booth Street and Highland Avenue in Chester, Pennsylvania — not far from the Highland Avenue Station, officials said. The impact derailed the lead engine of the train.
U.S. Representative Bob Brady, D-PA, told NBC10 the two people who died were longtime Amtrak employees, one with around 40 years of service and another with around 20 years of service. Brady also said they were doing scheduled maintenance on the tracks at the time of the crash.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters at a New York news conference on another subject Sunday that he was told by Amtrak board chairman Anthony Coscia that the workers killed were the backhoe operator and a supervisor, both Amtrak employees. He said debris from the crash flew into the first two cars, causing the injuries to passengers.
Schumer said it's unclear whether the backhoe was performing regular maintenance, which is usually 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 backhoes on the track, and no trains are supposed to go on a track where such 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.''
The train, which was headed from New York to Savannah, Georgia, had 341 passengers and seven crew members on board at the time, Amtrak said. At least 35 passengers suffered non-life-threatening injuries, Chester Fire Department Commissioner Travis Thomas said.
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.
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 to how fast the train was going at the time of the crash, he said.
Passengers told NBC10's Randy Gyllenhaal they heard a bang, felt a jolt and then saw a plume of smoke and a fireball as the train proceeded past the point of impact. The force of the wreck caused the train engine to derail, Amtrak said. NBC10 cameras captured the smashed windshields of the derailed engine and damage to the front cars including smashed windows.
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 started evacuating people to the rear of the train and then off and to a local 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 CSPAN'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.
Linton Holmes, a 15-year-old boy from Wilson, North Carolina, was near the back of the train after a visit with his mother in Sicklerville, New Jersey.
"The train was like rumbling... there was dust everywhere," he said.
Holmes said some people were cut up and he saw some people bloodied.
Local emergency responders on the scene assessed passengers. Concerned family members and friends of passengers who were on board the train were advised to call 1-800-523-9101 for information.
The nearby Trainer United Methodist Church at W 9th and Langley streets served as a staging scene. Emergency crews could be seen loading people on to waiting SEPTA buses to take them away from the scene.
SEPTA suspended trains along the Wilmington/Newark Line and Amtrak suspended all Northeast Corridor trains between Philadelphia and Wilmington for hours before beginning to operate limited service around 2:30 p.m. Keystone Service between New York and Harrisburg was not affected and is operating on schedule. Amtrak later announced Sunday night that service between Philadelphia and Wilmington would be restored Monday with some residual delays. SEPTA also announced they would resume service on the Wilmington/Newark Line for the Monday morning commute.
NJ Transit said it would accept Amtrak tickets for travelers going between New York and Trenton during the suspension. And SEPTA would honor Amtrak tickets for service on the Paoli/Thorndale Line to Trenton.
Unharmed passengers told NBC10 that Amtrak was helping them with rental cars so they could continue on their journey south. Other passengers were returned to Philadelphia, said officials.
It wasn't immediately clear why the backhoe was on the tracks. Federal Railroad Administration investigators joined local and Amtrak investigators in the search for clues Sunday. The National Transportation Safety Board took over the investigation once NTSB investigators arrived at the scene Sunday afternoon.
This derailment comes almost a year after an Amtrak train originating from Washington D.C. bound for New York City derailed in Philadelphia. Eight people died and more than 200 were injured in the May 12 crash. The exact cause of that crash remains under investigation, but authorities have said the train was traveling twice the speed limit.