CHESTER, Pa. (AP) — An Amtrak train struck a piece of heavy equipment just south of Philadelphia on Sunday causing a derailment, killing two Amtrak workers and sending 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 of 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 both forward-facing and inward-facing video from the locomotive has been recovered.
Frigo said the locomotive engineer was among those taken to hospitals but he couldn’t provide any conditions. Officials earlier said none of the injuries was deemed life-threatening.
Schumer said it’s unclear whether the equipment was being use 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 where 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.”
A message left with Amtrak officials has yet to be returned.
Frigo said the he could not answer why the equipment was on a track the train was using, but said that “scheduling” and “the track structure and the work that was 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.
Officials with the Federal Railroad Administration also were sent to the scene, said Matthew Lehner, a spokesman for the agency.
Service on the Northeast Corridor between New York and Philadelphia is operating after an earlier suspension. Limited service was restored between Wilmington, Delaware, and Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon.
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 of the passengers started to get off after the train stopped, but the conductor quickly stopped them. 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, he 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.” There was smoke and the smell of smoldering brakes as the train came to a stop, he said.
“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.
“As time passed and they took care of the injuries in the first two cars, they came back and eventually we were let off the train,” and hiked through woods to a local church, he said. “They admonished us at the beginning, ‘Don’t leave the train because there are two live tracks on either side, so don’t leave the train until we say it’s safe to do so.'”
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 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.
Associated Press radio correspondent Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.