How Frankford Remembers Amtrak 188

Scenes from an unsung neighborhood that gave its all in the face of tragedy


Illustration by Gluekit; hands: iStockphoto; train tracks: Bradley Maule; clown house: Liz Spikol

Christine Jerger’s plan to go for a quiet nighttime bike ride was interrupted by what seemed like the end of the world.

A flash of light pierced the sky, the ground shook, and a low, guttural rumble echoed through her corner of Frankford. It was 9:21 p.m. on May 12, 2015. Amtrak Train 188 had just derailed near a collection of graffiti-drenched brick warehouses that butt up against a desolate-looking stretch of Coral Street, not far from Jerger’s home on Buckius Street.

To hell with the bike ride, she thought. Jerger and her brother, Stephen, bolted toward the source of the noise. A large cyclone fence blocked their path to the train tracks. Entry gates were bound with a metal chain and lock. “I just squeezed my little ass through the gates and ran up to the train,” Jerger, 25, says one year later.

A staggering amount of carnage — fresh and undiscovered — lurked ahead. Emergency responders hadn’t yet arrived at the scene.

“It was so dark. Mainly you could see people standing on top of the train with their phones out, yelling, ‘Help! Help!’” Jerger says. “I started talking to some of them. One lady had something wrong with her leg. We helped a guy get her across the tracks.” Jerger says she made phone calls to worried relatives of some crash survivors. Others were gushing blood. She peppered them with questions to keep them awake.

In the days that followed, the full scope of the catastrophe came into focus. Eight passengers lost their lives, and 164 others suffered a range of injuries, from scratches to fractures to ruptured organs. High Street on Market chef and owner Eli Kulp was left paralyzed.

The accident has been exhaustively analyzed. You can find out just about anything you want regarding the crash with a quick Internet search, from the train’s speed as it neared the dangerous curve at Frankford Junction (106 mph) to details about the personal life of its engineer, Brandon Bostian. But largely lost in all the coverage has been the heroic way the neighborhood reacted.

Oh, residents were good sports when film crews and an endless array of local and federal investigators used their neighborhood as a staging ground in the immediate aftermath of the crash. (Then again, they didn’t have much choice.) But some Frankford dwellers showed a stunning amount of grit and heart — even for a city that’s all about grit and heart.

“I was so proud of them,” says U.S. Rep Bob Brady, who thinks the rowhouse rescuers have been overlooked as a much-needed silver lining to an otherwise dark tragedy. Frankford falls at one end of his district; at the other sits Chester, which was home to its own fatal rail accident on April 3rd, when Amtrak Train 89 slammed into a backhoe on the tracks, killing two veteran Amtrak employees.

“They’re tough, blue-collar, hardworking rowhouse people,” Brady says. “It was the dead of night, and they went out there with flashlights and helped. They opened their houses to the passengers.”

“These neighbors gave their cell phones and water and whatever else they had,” says Ronald Bordone, the owner of the small and perpetually busy Pete’s Clown House Restaurant. Waitresses hurry to fill orders while Bordone, 51, reflects on playing near the tracks as a kid, when boxcars, not passenger trains, made up the bulk of rail traffic. “People around here get a bad rap. But they stepped forward that night.”

On a recent afternoon, as chunks of asphalt and sidewalk are peeled away from Frankford Avenue for springtime repairs, people go about their business, running errands and chitchatting with neighbors, paying little mind to the occasional sound of a passenger train shuttling past — something like steel gliding across ice.

Pattie, 56 — she doesn’t feel like giving her last name — stands on a sidewalk near Arcadia Street, looking down Wheatsheaf Lane toward the train tracks. Her three-year-old grandson, Patrick, is tucked inside a small stroller.

She talks about how her friends on Arcadia gave shoes to passengers who had lost theirs in the wreck. Patrick leans forward as the sound starts up again and a locomotive shimmies into view.

“Look!” he squeals. “Turn around! A train!”

A small smile creeps across Pattie’s face.

“He loves his trains,” she says.

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Published as “How Frankford Remembers Amtrak 188” in the May 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.