Amtrak derailment victims recall harrowing moments following crash

As federal investigators focused Wednesday on high speed as the cause of the Amtrak derailment that left more than 200 people injured and seven dead — including a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman — survivors recounted the harrowing minutes following the crash in Philadelphia.

Amtrak suspended all service until further notice along the Philadelphia-to-New York stretch of the nation's busiest rail corridor as investigators examined the wreckage and the tracks and gathered other evidence. The shutdown snarled the commute and forced thousands to find some other way to reach their destination.


Dan Colacicco, 64, a sugar analyst from Annapolis who was headed to Manhattan for an industry conference, knew something was wrong when the train hit a curve. "Then instead of banking into the turn, we banked out of it," he said. "I kept thinking, 'It's not going to go over, it's not going to go over.' Then I must have hit something and blacked out."

When Colacicco came to, his train car was on its side and a woman was three feet above him, knocking out a window. "I didn't think there was any way I could go out because I only had one good arm," he said. But then passengers started helping one another — some hoisted, others lifted. One by one, those who could manage escaped.


Colacicco believes others remained motionless in the car but isn't sure, because his glasses were lost in the crash.

A Towson businessman remained missing Wednesday, as local rescue workers searched the scene and federal investigators combed the wreckage for clues as to why the train left the tracks.

Among the snarled mounds of metal and battered cars left at the scene, National Transportation Safety Board investigators uncovered the locomotive's data recorder, which revealed that the train had been traveling about 106 mph as it approached the curve near Frankford Junction, where speeds are capped at 50 mph.

NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said the cause of the derailment remained under investigation late Wednesday, but he added that it likely would have been prevented if an automatic system that can halt trains from speeding had been in place on the stretch of track.

The federal government has mandated that the system be used nationwide on such passenger lines by the end of this year. The data recorder showed the engineer instead used an emergency brake just before the derailment, too late to prevent the destruction, Sumwalt said.

"Our mission is to find out not only what happened, but why it happened, so that we can prevent it from happening again," Sumwalt said. "That's really what we're here for, is [to] learn from these things."

Amtrak officials have provided no information on the number of passengers who boarded Train 188 in Maryland. An online timetable had it scheduled to pass through four Maryland stops, including Baltimore's Penn Station.

Officials said the train's locomotive and all seven passenger cars derailed at Frankford Junction in North Philadelphia about 9:21 p.m. The online schedule had it departing Penn Station at 7:54 p.m.

The derailment occurred in Port Richmond, one of five neighborhoods in what's known as Philadelphia's River Wards, dense rowhouse neighborhoods located off the Delaware River.

David Hernandez, whose home is close to the tracks, said the derailment "sounded like a bunch of shopping carts crashing into each other."

The crashing sound lasted a few seconds, he said, and then there was chaos and screaming.

On Wednesday, the Naval Academy informed its brigade that 20-year-old Justin Zemser, a midshipman headed home on leave to Rockaway Beach, N.Y., had died in the crash.


"I speak for the brigade of midshipmen, the faculty and staff when I say we are all completely heartbroken by this," said Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman.

Also among the dead were Plainsboro, N.J., resident Jim Gaines, 48, a video software architect for the Associated Press, and Wells Fargo Senior Vice President Abid Gilani. The identities of the other people killed have not been released.

Bob Gildersleeve, a vice president of corporate accounts at Ecolab in Towson — where he has worked for 22 years — remained missing Wednesday. Family members who passed out fliers with his picture near the scene, desperate for information, declined to comment.

Roman Blahorski, an Ecolab spokesman, said the company is "concerned about Bob's well-being, and we are hoping for the best."

Rachel Jacobs, a married mother of two and CEO for Philadelphia startup ApprenNet, was also killed, according to The Washington Post. She had been traveling home to New York.

Colacicco said that when he awoke in the dark, smoky overturned car, he was "absolutely in disbelief."

Then instinct kicked in.

"I was scared to death there was going to be a fire and we would all get roasted," he said. "That's what drove everybody to try to get out."

After climbing out of the window near the roof, Colacicco and the other passengers found themselves on the side of the car 10 feet off the ground, amid a scene of devastation. Twisted metal stood in heaps. No signs of movement came from another car nearby.

Firefighters soon brought ladders, and once on the ground, those who could walk were moved to a secure area where everyone was given a number between one and three, he said.

Colacicco was a three, one of the "not so bad cases," he said. "They had so many people they were trying to take to the hospital that we actually went to the hospital in a [police] wagon."

After being treated in the hospital for a sprained shoulder and lacerations to his leg, arm and face, Colacicco was picked up by relatives. They got back to Annapolis around 6 a.m. Wednesday. That afternoon, his doctor told him he had a cracked collarbone, too.

The derailment was the deadliest incident involving an Amtrak train on the Northeast Corridor since the 1987 Maryland collision between an Amtrak train and a Conrail freight engine near Chase, in which 16 people were killed and another 175 were injured.

In 1943, 79 people were killed and at least 120 injured when a Pennsylvania Railroad train carrying 541 people — including servicemen returning from weekend furloughs — derailed in the same location as Tuesday's crash, also on its way from Washington to New York.

Officials say the death toll of Tuesday's derailment could increase.

Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, which runs from Washington to Boston, is the busiest stretch of passenger rail line in the country, serving 750,000 passengers and 2,000 commuter, intercity and freight trains per day, according to the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission.

The commission has estimated that a loss of service on the corridor for a single day would cost $100 million in travel delays and lost productivity. Workers who ride trains on the corridor contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy annually, the commission has found.

On Thursday, Amtrak service will be limited between Washington and Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and New York and Boston, the railroad said. There will be no service between New York and Philadelphia.


Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said Wednesday that it was unclear when the corridor would reopen. Citing the mangled train tracks and downed wires, he said there was "no circumstance under which there would be any Amtrak service this week through Philadelphia."


In Maryland, the corridor is used for Amtrak and freight trains as well as the Maryland Transit Administration's passenger MARC train service. Baltimore, a traditional railroad town, has some of the system's oldest infrastructure.

The Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel under West Baltimore, for instance, is 140 years old and a key choke point for Amtrak and other rail traffic, forcing trains to slow their speeds substantially. It has been slated to be replaced, though Amtrak officials have questioned whether funding will be provided to cover the estimated $1.5 billion price tag.

On Wednesday in Washington, lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee voted against a budget amendment that would have increased Amtrak funding — even as other elected officials in Maryland called for greater funding for the agency.

"While the cause of this derailment will take time to determine, investments in safer cars and positive train control as well as maintaining and improving the curves of the track to handle higher speeds may have prevented an accident like this from happening, or minimized the extent of the damage and injuries," Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement. "We cannot continue to put public safety in jeopardy by undercutting federal investments in our infrastructure."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who participated in the committee hearing, said the fault lies in sequestration, which requires across-the-board cuts on federal programs.

"You can't continue to cut your way through all of the important transportation projects and programs and not continue to have problems," he said. "Sequestration is making our country weaker."

In a statement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said her "heart aches" for the passengers on the train.

"Amtrak service is a way of life for so many of our city residents, as well as visitors from all across the Northeast who commute to, from and through our city every day," she said. "My prayers are with the families of those who lost their lives in this tragedy. We will support the recovery efforts in every way possible as authorities work to identity the cause of the crash."

Gov Larry Hogan also offered condolences to crash victims and said in a statement, "I have been in touch with [Pennsylvania] Governor Tom Wolf and assured him that Maryland will offer our full support in helping Pennsylvania deal with the aftermath of this tragic accident. Our administration is also in contact with the authorities on the ground and is working to confirm information about any potential Marylanders who may be affected."

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both expressed sadness and shock over the incident, thanked first responders and noted Amtrak's central role in the lives of so many people who live and work along the Northeast Corridor.

"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," Obama said.

The impact on the East Coast's broader rail network was unclear, though railroad and port of Baltimore officials said the impact on freight through Maryland was minimal.

In Baltimore on Wednesday morning, Melvin Gibbs, who lives on Long Island, said he was supposed to be on Train 188 after visiting his girlfriend at Fort Meade but missed it. Tuesday night, he received texts from friends who had learned of the wreck, asking if he was OK.

Gibbs was mainly concerned about finding a way home.

He managed to get a ticket for the 12:45 p.m. BoltBus, but was already worried about how he would return to Baltimore next week. "I will be driving from here on in," he said.

Lisa Bonanno stood in Penn Station looking at an electronic train schedule above, trying to figure out how to get to work in Washington. She was aboard Train 188 Tuesday night, but got off in Baltimore before its derailment in Philadelphia.

Still, she said the crash would not deter her from riding Amtrak.

"This is very unusual," she said. "Driving is so much worse."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Jessica Anderson, Colin Campbell and Tim Prudente and the Associated Press contributed to this article.


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