U.S. investigators review data from fatal Philadelphia train wreck

By Jarrett Renshaw

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Federal investigators have recovered the black box from the wreckage of an Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia and were reviewing data to determine what caused the crash that killed at least six people and injured more than 200, officials said on Wednesday.

The train may have been travelling more than 100 miles an hour (161 kph) when it derailed on a sharp curve, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing two people familiar with the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). That was double the 50-mph speed limit on that stretch of track, according to the report. An agency official declined to comment.

Robert Sumwalt, a NTSB board member, said speed was just one factor investigators would consider, and that the black box, also known as an events recorder, would help determine whether excessive speed played a role in the derailment.

At a news conference before the Journal's story, Sumwalt said the probe would also focus on the condition of the tracks and equipment, crew training and the performance of the five-person crew.

"We will be speculating while we are here," Sumwalt said, who offered no timetable on how long the investigation would take. "We have a lot of work to do."

Passenger rail service along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, the country's busiest with 12 million passengers a year, was immediately shut down, leaving travellers scrambling for alternatives. It also snarled commuter rail services that share Amtrak tracks in the Philadelphia area and beyond.

About 15 hours after Amtrak No. 188 carrying 243 people jumped the track at about 9:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday (0130 GMT Wednesday), rescue workers sifted through the twisted metal and other debris. One of the seven cars landed upside down and three were tossed on their sides, while passengers and luggage were sent flying, survivors said.

Philadelphia-area hospitals and health systems reported treating more than 200 people, Philadelphia Emergency Management Director Samantha Phillips said at a news conference.

Mayor Michael Nutter said six people were confirmed dead, but authorities had not yet accounted for everyone aboard.

NBC News later reported that a Philadelphia police spokesman said a seventh victim had died in an area hospital. A Philadelphia police spokesman could not immediately confirm the report.

Officials did not provide a figure on the number of injured, but said the train's conductor was among them. The mayor said the conductor was giving a statement to police.

The wreck was the latest in a series of rail accidents on heavily travelled passenger train routes over the past year, raising new concerns about the state of the country's ageing rail infrastructure.

The crash and Amtrak funding were likely to come up during a session of the House Appropriations Committee, which was meeting on Wednesday to discuss the transportation budget for the next fiscal year.

The train derailed in the city's Port Richmond neighbourhood along the Delaware River, near the site of a 1943 rail accident that killed 79 people.


Vice President Joe Biden, who represented the state of Delaware - south of Philadelphia - in the U.S. Senate for years, expressed shock and sorrow.

"Amtrak is like a second family to me, as it is for so many other passengers," Biden said in a statement, pointing out that he took about 8,000 Amtrak trips to and from Washington during his career.

One of the people killed was a midshipman on leave from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, an academy spokesman said. He said the identity of the midshipman was being withheld for 24 hours until family was notified.

An Associated Press video software architect was also among those killed. Jim Gaines, a 48-year-old father of two, had attended meetings in Washington and was returning to his home in Plainsboro, New Jersey, when the train derailed Tuesday night. His death was confirmed by his wife, Jacqueline.

Dr. Herbert Cushing, Temple University Hospital's chief medical officer, said the dead suffered massive chest injuries. Most of the injured at Temple suffered fractures, he said at a news conference.

Port Richmond is a working-class neighbourhood that has recently become a popular place to live among younger adults in the city. Michael Hand, 44, who lives a few blocks from the crash, said he was outside drinking a beer at the time.

"There was a flash and then there was a big boom," he said.

In March, 21 people were injured in Los Angeles, when a commuter train collided with a car. A month earlier, 50 people were hurt and an engineer fatally injured when a Los Angeles-bound Metrolink train struck a pickup truck.

Also in February, six people were killed and a dozen injured when a commuter train hit a car stalled on the tracks north of New York City. The driver of the vehicle also died.

The Philadelphia accident occurred near the site of a train derailment at Frankford Junction in north Philadelphia that killed 79 people and injured 117 others in 1943, according to the National Railway Historical Society.

The derailment left travellers along the Washington-to-New York corridor scrambling to find alternatives.

At New York's LaGuardia Airport, attorney Wayne Hess said he had planned to take the train back to Washington but instead booked a flight after hearing of the accident.

"It made me feel lucky because I came up yesterday," Hess said.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Kelley in Philadelphia, Ellen Wulfhorst in New York and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Steve Gorman, Curtis Skinner and Frank McGurty; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)