At Amtrak Derailment Site, Neighbors Acted As First Responders

A Buckius Street resident describes the tragic scene immediately after the train derailed.
Buckius Street, which turned into a hub of helpful activity after the trains derailed, is blocked off now. | Photo by Liz Spikol

Buckius Street, which turned into a hub of helpful activity after the trains derailed, is blocked off now. Photo | Liz Spikol

Tiffany O’Neill, 27, stands among journalists laden with cameras and tripods across from a large empty lot on Frankford Avenue. She’s watching, at quite a distance, as a huge crane makes its way toward an Amtrak train car lying on its side. Men in orange vests scurry around the train like symbiotic little fish around a giant sea creature. The wind whips Tiffany’s long light brown hair, which she pushes out of her freckled face as she talks. She’s one of very few local residents here — there may be four total — watching. But like her neighbors on tiny Buckius Street, just two blocks down, she has been on this site, on and off, since the first moment she heard the crash last night, which she first thought was her upstairs neighbor vacuuming. 

“I did see a flash, but I didn’t pay it no mind. And then I seen the fire trucks and I ran outside. It looked bad,” Tiffany says. Passengers were streaming out of the trains and across the vacant lot toward Frankford Avenue. “There was people crying, they looked confused. Sad. They’re coming up to me, ‘Excuse me, you know how to get out of here?’ I’m like, ‘Where are you from?’ They’re like, ‘New York.’ They want to go home. Some of them didn’t have nothing. My uncle said they looked like zombies coming out of there, they looked so shocked.”

Tiffany let one girl use her phone to call her family, but the girl didn’t get an answer. They parted but Tiffany kept thinking about it, so she dialed the number again and this time someone picked up. She hurried back to the girl’s side and held out her phone. “I said, ‘Here, here!’ She didn’t want to grab my phone but I said, ‘Let them know, it’s an emergency. You have to let them know.’ She didn’t have no shoes and I was going to go home and get some shoes for her but my neighbor gave her the shoes from her feet. It was just sad.”

Another of Tiffany’s Buckius Street neighbors opened his home so people could come in and wash up. The neighbors started distributing water. Several of them went to help those who were wounded, who they’d heard crying for help.  Tiffany couldn’t do that herself, but neighbors told her what they’d seen. “I heard some gruesome stuff,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s appropriate for …” She trailed off and looked like she might cry. “They did a good job helping,” she said of her neighbors. “All this drama that goes on in Philly, there’s still a lot of good people out here. When something like this happens, people are willing to help.”

Follow @lspikol on Twitter.