At least six people were killed and 140 hospitalized in a train wreck on one of America’s busiest passenger rail routes Tuesday night. Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train broke free from the tracks and buckled; ripping cars apart and flipping them on their sides as the train passed through Philadelphia at around 9.30 p.m. ET.
A survivor, who had been riding near the rear of the train, told The Daily Beast “It was chaos. All of a sudden everything just went crazy.”
Hundreds of police officers and firefighters raced to the scene of the crash along with dozens of officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. So many commuters suffered injuries that buses were required to take them to nearby hospitals.
Officials said at least six of the more than 140 wounded were critically injured.
Jeremy Wladis, a passenger on Northeast Regional 188, said he was stunned by what he had witnessed. “We saw two women get launched up into the luggage rack overhead,” he told The Daily Beast. “It was just chaos and craziness, the whole world just went berserk.”
It is unclear at this stage how or why the train derailed but passengers said that the front of the train was going into a turn when it started to shake before coming to an abrupt halt. The train was reportedly approaching the same curve in the tracks where one of the worst rail crashes in U.S. history took place 72 years ago. Seventy-nine people were killed that day, but rail-safety standards were supposed to have improved beyond recognition since the 1940s.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said at a press conference Tuesday night that officials had yet to account for all 243 people who were aboard the train, which was headed north from Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.
“It’s an absolute, disastrous mess. I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life,” he said. “The train’s seven cars, including the engine, are in various stages of disarray—turned over, upside down, on their side. We are still investigating what’s going on.”
Daniel Wetrin, who was on the train, said passengers toward the rear had been able to walk out of the back door, but “the carriages in front of us were pretty fucked up.”
“I ran onto the food car, which was three carriages from where we were, to see if I could help out. I saw five people stuck who couldn't get out.” Wetrin told The Daily Beast, before pausing. “I don’t know why, but there was nothing I could do for them—what could I do? So I left. I was a bit shaken up.”
Among those in the train’s café car was former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA), who made it out of the train unharmed after trying to help the injured. He later tweeted: “Thank you so much to all the first responders-there w/in minutes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Emergency personnel from across Philadelphia descended on the wreckage and a pop-up triage center formed in the intersection of Frankford and Sedgley avenues, just blocks from the derailed train. The scene was densely populated by city officials, police officers, firefighters, and local residents vying to get a closer look, adding additional disorder to an already chaotic situation.
Those injured in the derailment were placed on stretchers and transported to various local hospitals—Temple University Hospital, Area Health Torresdale, Jefferson University Hospital, Hahnemann University Hospital, and Einstein Medical Center— in police wagons, SEPTA busses, and ambulances. Other passengers who were not in need of serious medical attention, like Wladis and Wetrin, were brought to Webster Elementary School, where the Red Cross and volunteers from the local community set up a reception center. Passengers who were brought to the school were interviewed and treated for their wounds. Families were able to meet there for pickup. Others with family members on the train arrived at Webster simply for more information about their loved ones.
Among the volunteers helping at the reception center were members of the Block Church, a church group based in Port Richmond. “[The members of The Block Church] all live in this neighborhood and heard the sirens and choppers, so we decided to go see how we could help,” Cherith Harkness said. “Over Easter, we were able to serve firemen breakfast and lunch so we have some relationships [with the fire department]. We reached out to people we knew and asked how we could help. They told us to bring Gatorade, water bottles, and towels to the school.”
Another volunteer from the church group described the inside of the reception center as calm. “I was surprised how it wasn’t chaotic at all, everything seemed under control,” she said. “Nobody was too frazzled and everyone seemed to be handling it all pretty well.”
The FBI said there’s no indication of terrorism with regard to the wreckage thus far, but vehicles from the Philadelphia Police Department’s Homeland Security Unit were present at the scene. Some residents who live close to the tracks said they noticed how trains would regularly take that turn at high speed, and said they weren’t surprised that something like this could happen.