Near Miss

Derailed Amtrak Cars Nearly Hit ‘Bomb Train’

Photos of the Philadelphia crash show the wreckage near a train that carries explosive crude oil. How the deadly accident could have been even worse—and what the NTSB is investigating.

05.14.15 2:10 AM ET

Iwina Washington was sitting on her porch in the Frankford section of Philadelphia on Tuesday evening when she saw a flash of light and heard a strange sound.

“It was this big boom and a light,” she said. “It looked like it was daytime down there, like the sun just came up.”

Washington thought it was a downed power line. But first responders and firefighters soon informed her something much worse had happened. Now, a day after Washington heard a New York-bound Amtrak train derail close to her Philadelphia home, local residents, Amtrak passengers, and various officials have started to answer some of the most urgent and pressing questions surrounding the tragedy that has left seven confirmed dead and dozens injured across various city hospitals.

Reports emerged Wednesday afternoon that the derailed train came close to plowing into one or more Conrail oil tanker train cars. One witness told CNN the train missed a tanker “by maybe 50 yards.” Conrail, whose lines carry between 45 and 80 oil trains through Philadelphia each week, transports crude oil headed to refineries in south Philadelphia or terminals and refining operations in New Jersey. Crude oil is explosive, and some in the media have dubbed these tankers “bomb trains.”

Officials survey the site of a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania May 13, 2015. An Amtrak passenger train with more than 200 passengers on board derailed in north Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least five people and injuring scores of others, several of them critically, authorities said. Authorities said they had no idea what caused the train wreck at about 9:30 p.m. local time that left some rail cars mangled, ripped open and strewn upside down and on their sides in the city's Port Richmond neighborhood along the Delaware River.

Mike Segar/Reuters

At a press conference Wednesday evening, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the oil tankers near to the derailed Amtrak train were not full, though he did not say they contained no crude oil.

“Just moments” before the derailment, Sumwalt said, the engineer operating the Amtrak train Tuesday night applied full emergency brakes. The train was traveling about 106 mph as it headed into a left turn where the maximum speed limit was 50 mph.

While Sumwalt called the speed findings “preliminary,” he said he was confident that the 106 mph figure was accurate to within “1 or 2” miles per hour. The engineer, identified as Brandon Bostian, 32, reportedly walked out of an interview with Philadelphia detectives and has hired a lawyer.

The stretch of track where the train derailed was not equipped with an automated speed control system, Sumwalt said, adding that “had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.”

The NTSB investigation of the derailment, led by Mike Flanagan, will focus on the speed of the train, the condition of the track, possible mechanical problems or defects with the train, and the actions of the crew, among other issues. As part of the investigation, the train’s event recorder and forward-facing video and event recorder are both being sent to the NTSB lab in Washington, D.C.

“I heard the firetrucks, then everyone started rushing in there to get those people out,” Iwina Washington told The Daily Beast of the first minutes after the crash. “Some people were out walking upright, they seemed OK. They were the ones in the last car. But people from the front were banged up, coming out on stretchers. Some had their whole faces wrapped up. Everybody was in tears.”

Washington said she could hear people yelling, “Just crawl out!” and “Get out!”

“It was a bit like The Walking Dead,” she said.

One person who emerged from the train was Jeff Kutler, a Brooklyn resident who had been traveling in the second car, which also happened to be the quiet car, on his way home from a business trip.

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“I chose the quiet car for a change, thinking it would be quiet ride,” he said. “I experienced this speed around the curve and the train seemingly lifting off the track, tipping, and hitting with a thud.”

Kutler described a variety of injuries to his fellow passengers inside the train, including a woman who had been sitting near him and had broken her leg. She was sure of it, he said, because she was a doctor.

As of Wednesday evening, seven fatalities have been confirmed among the 243 people on board. The identities of four have been made public: Justin Zemser, 20, of Rockaway Beach, Queens, a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman; Jim Gaines, 46, of Plainsboro, N.J., a video software architect for the Associated Press; Rachel Jacobs, 39, of New York City, CEO of the Philadelphia-based education technology company ApprenNet; and Abid Gilani, 55, of Walnut Creek, Calif.; a senior vice president for Wells Fargo in New York City.

Washington said that on Tuesday night a nearby officer told her that a young boy was among the dead pulled from the wreckage. Philadelphia police would not confirm that a child had died, saying, “We don’t have any IDs or ages on the fatalities.”

In January, a three-locomotive, 111-car CSX freight train was traveling from Chicago to the Philadelphia area when 11 tank cars containing crude oil came off the tracks in south Philadelphia. The incident took place almost exactly a year after seven cars carrying crude oil on a CSX train derailed over the Schuylkill River.

Both of those accidents were “predictable, preventable, and a near miss from potentially catastrophic impacts,” writes activist Iris Marie Bloom.

Whether Tuesday’s Amtrak derailment could also have been prevented should be known soon. The NTSB’s probe will take about a week, but Sumwalt said the public will get daily updates as the investigation progresses.