What We Know About the Amtrak 188 Crash, Based on the Interviews

Interviews with crew members and the control center dispatcher indicate lots of rocks were being thrown in the vicinity of Frankford Junction — and that something hit the train just before it derailed.
Emergency personnel work the scene of a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. |Photo by Joseph Kaczmarek/AP

Emergency personnel work the scene of a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. |Photo by Joseph Kaczmarek/AP

“‘I don’t know if someone is shooting at us or throwing rocks, but I see it.’ After that, the horn started to go.”

That’s how assistant conductor Akida Henry first described the radio transmission she heard between Brandon Bostian, the engineer on Amtrak train 188, and the control center in Wilmington, Del., just seconds before the train derailed on a sharp curve with a posted top speed of 50 mph. Data from the locomotive event recorder at that time shows the train was traveling at 106 mph at 9:20:31 p.m., followed four seconds later by an engineer initiated emergency — that is, an application of the emergency brakes — then, three seconds after that, by the end of the recorder data. At that point, the train was doing 102 mph.

Interviews with both assistant conductor Henry and dispatcher Joseph Curran, who was responsible that night for controlling movements in the stretch of track that runs through North Philadelphia, indicate that trains running through the area of the accident were being damaged by projectiles of some sort. The interviews are part of a big information release today from the NTSB.

In his testimony, Curran did not mention Bostian’s transmission, mainly because he was preoccupied with an injured engineer on SEPTA train 746, which was stopped at milepost 86, about five miles south of where Amtrak 188 derailed. The engineer of that train reported his windshield being blown out: “He said he wasn’t sure what blew out his windshield,” Curran said. “He wasn’t sure if it was a rock, somebody stoned his train, or maybe even a possible gunshot. He didn’t really know.

“So I asked if he wanted medical attention. My focus was on him at the moment. And he said he wanted medical attention. And at the same time, 188 was coming up east to his location.”

And before SEPTA 746 reported its blown windshield, he said, he overheard that an Acela train headed west through the same area reported a possible gunshot or stoning.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators took the damaged window from that Acela train and examined it; the investigators reported they found no evidence that the damage was ballistic in nature.

Joseph Brennan, a dispatcher who was riding 188 from Washington to his overnight shift in New York, described his encounter with Bostian after the accident: “He was sitting on the ground, his head busted up pretty good and everything.” He borrowed Bostian’s cell phone to call his ex, his fiancée and his parents to let them know he was all right, then asked Bostian what he did. His recollection of the conversation: “He says, ‘I was the engineer of this train.’ And he was shooken up. But he didn’t really recall anything and was just really upset about everything and I just kind of left it at that.'” He also described Bostian as holding a cloth to the left side of his face: “There were blotches all over his face. I asked him, ‘What happened?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.'”

Henry vouched for Bostian’s character and work ethic in her interview. “Brandon is great. He knows his job,” he said. “I’ve never seen him do anything that he wasn’t supposed to do.” NTSB analysis of Bostian’s cell phone shows that the device was never used or active from the time Amtrak 188 departed Washington up to the point of the crash.

While not conclusive, this evidence strongly suggests that some sort of projectile might have distracted Bostian enough that he failed to notice the upcoming speed restriction at the very least.

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Sandy Smith Home and Real Estate Editor @MarketStEl
ssmith@phillymag.com