Now that the sun is up in Philadelphia, authorities have begun trying to answer the many questions that people have about the Amtrak train that crashed there late on Tuesday night, killing at least seven people. The train’s black box was located this morning, which helped officials learn the speed that the train was going when it crashed.
The speed limit for the section of track where the train derailed was 50 mph; it was going at least 100 mph, according to the new data uncovered at Amtrak’s operations center in Delaware. The Federal Railroad Administration said that Amtrak did a check-up on Philadelphia tracks hours before the crash and found nothing troubling.
Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter held a press conference on the crash on Wednesday morning and said that all 238 passengers had not been accounted for yet, which means that the death toll may rise.
The identities of those who died are slowly beginning to be released. Twenty-year-old midshipman Justin Zemser, who was heading home from the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, died in the accident, as did Jim Gaines, an Associated Press video software architect. In addition to the seven casualties, six people are in critical condition and at least 200 others were transported to the hospital to be evaluated or treated for less serious injuries.
Shortly after the crash, Nutter declared the site of the crash "an absolute disastrous mess. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life."
Daniel Hernandez, who lives near where the train derailed, heard it happen. “It sounded like a bunch of shopping carts crashing into each other,” he told NBC Philadelphia. After that, he heard screaming.
Paul Cheung, an Associated Press manager who was on the train, said he felt the train start to decelerate, like someone was stepping on the brake. “Then suddenly you could see everything starting to shake,” he said. “You could see people’s stuff flying over me.”
“All of a sudden it felt like the brakes were hit hard and then our car,” Michael Black, another passenger, told NBC Philadelphia. “We were third from the last, just slowly started going over to the side. I tried to just brace my arm against it and then just got off.”
Passengers posted photos and video of their escape on social media:
There were 200 police officers and 120 firefighters on the scene last night, and lights were brought in as they searched for people still caught on the train. At least four area hospitals were taking in passengers, and city buses were brought in to transport those who weren’t seriously injured.
The derailment is the worst accident in the northeast corridor in years. Former Pennsylvania congressman Patrick Murphy, who hosts MSNBC’s Taking the Hill, was on the train when it crashed, and Senator Tom Carper of Delaware got off shortly before the derailment.
A train heading from Washington to New York crashed in Philadelphia in 1943, and the New York Times called the accident, which left dozens dead, “the nation’s worst railroad disaster in many years, if not in the history of American railroading.”
Rail service between New York and Philadelphia was stopped on Tuesday night, and Mayor Nutter said, “There’s no circumstance under which there would be any service through Philadelphia on this Amtrak line for the rest of this week.” Amtrak said in a statement:
On Wednesday, May 13, modified Amtrak service will be provided between Washington and Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and New York and Boston. There will be no Amtrak service between New York and Philadelphia, but New Jersey Transit will honor Amtrak tickets between New York City and Trenton.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit have also had to suspend service on several lines. In Union Station, the usually full waiting area was basically empty owing to the cancellations.
The tragedy is sure to set off another round of debate about rail safety and infrastructure funding — starting in Congress. The House is marking up a fiscal bill on Wednesday that includes funding for Amtrak. A previously approved version of the legislation would “slash Amtrak’s funding to $1.13 billion, less than the roughly $1.4 billion it typically receives annually.” The House Appropriations Committee voted down a Democratic amendment that would increase funding. When Democrats said that the crash provided a pressing reason to boost the rail system’s funding, Rep. Mike Simpson said, according to Politico, “Don’t use this tragedy in that way. It was beneath you.”
Plenty of people outside Congress see the tragedy as an opportunity to discuss American infrastructure. Former Transportation Secretary and Republican representative Ray LaHood said this morning, “America is in a crisis when it comes to infrastructure.”
The last time Congress passed an Amtrak bill, as the Washington Post noted, was after a crash in 2008. National Journal published a long report on the woes of Amtrak last month. “Meanwhile,” the story notes, after describing the status of our old, slow, and unloved rail system, “the Chinese government — fair comparison or not — will be spending $128 billion this year on rail.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who once appeared on the cover of Amtrak’s magazine, Arrive, next to the headline, “Why America Needs Trains,” said in a statement today, “Amtrak is like a second family to me.”
“I’ve come to know the conductors, engineers, and other regulars — men and women riding home to kiss their kids goodnight— as we passed the flickering lights of each neighborhood along the way,” the statement said. “Our thoughts are with every person who is grieving right now from this terrible tragedy.” The White House also released a statement from President Obama. “Along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is a way of life for many.” He added, “Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love — a city of neighborhoods and neighbors — and that spirit of loving-kindness was reaffirmed last night, as hundreds of first responders and passengers lent a hand to their fellow human beings in need.”
This post has been updated throughout.