The New York-bound Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia, killing seven and injuring more than 200, was traveling 106 miles per hour just before the accident, more than double the speed limit, according to U.S. regulators.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the speed based on preliminary data and is continuing its examination, according to the agency. The engineer applied full brakes seconds before the accident but only slowed the train to 102 mph, said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member. The speed limit in the curve where the wreck occurred is 50 miles per hour.
“We’ve suffered a tragedy here in our city,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said Wednesday at a news briefing. “I don’t believe that anyone sitting here, standing here today has any memory of a derailment of this kind in 50 years.”
Northeast Regional Train 188, which originated in Washington, went off the tracks about 9:30 p.m., closing part of the busiest passenger-rail corridor in the U.S. The train carried 238 passengers. Neither Amtrak nor regulators explained why the train was traveling faster than it should have been.
A data recorder is being analyzed at an Amtrak facility in Delaware, Nutter said. That should tell investigators the train’s speed and how the throttle, brakes, horn and bells were applied, Sumwalt said. The locomotive had a forward-facing camera and its footage will be reviewed. The NTSB hasn’t talked yet with the engineer, though investigators plan to do so, Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt said NTSB investigators started arriving before 5 a.m. at the scene where an engine and seven cars careened off the tracks. The wreck turned a Philadelphia neighborhood into a search-and-rescue zone, illuminated by flashlights and spotlights as workers pulled the injured from cars and bloodied passengers hobbled from the wreckage.
“Along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is a way of life for many,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “From Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia to New York City and Boston, this is a tragedy that touches us all.”
One passenger killed was identified by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, as a midshipman on leave and headed home. The victim was confirmed as Justin Zemser by his father, Howard, of Rockaway Beach, New York. The family will release a statement later, Howard Zemser said by telephone.
An Associated Press video-software architect also was killed. Jim Gaines, a 48-year-old father of two, had attended meetings in Washington and was returning home to Plainsboro, New Jersey. His death was confirmed by his wife, Jacqueline.
Amtrak service between New York and Philadelphia is likely to remain suspended Thursday, sending business travelers and commuters searching for other ways to traverse the East Coast.
Modified service will be provided between Washington and Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and New York and Boston, according to an Amtrak statement. New Jersey Transit will honor Amtrak tickets between New York City and Trenton.
Amtrak’s accident rate has been inching higher, with 67 in 2014, up from 58 in 2013 and 57 in 2012, according to the Federal Railroad Administration
There were nine derailments in the first two months of this year alone, though none was fatal, according to the agency. Amtrak logged 28 derailments nationwide in 2014, up from 25 in 2013.
Tuesday’s accident was far from Amtrak’s deadliest. In 1993, 47 people died and 103 were injured as rail cars careened off a bridge and into water near Mobile, Alabama.
The carnage in Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood occurred in an area filled with industrial warehouses, auto mechanics and body shops. A 1943 derailment of the Congressional Limited train, which killed 79, occurred nearby.
Mortimer Downey, a transportation consultant who has been deputy U.S. transportation secretary and an Amtrak board member, said investigators would examine the track’s configuration and condition closely. He described the curve near the accident sites as “very sharp.”
“You hit that curve and it’s literally a right angle,” he said.
Amtrak sets lower speed limits on curves, he said, and locomotives on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston are equipped with a speed-control system.
“We often look at human error, but there could be mechanical errors, there could be readings that are incorrect,” Deborah Hersman, a former chairwoman of the NTSB, said in a phone interview.
In a 2013 Metro-North Railroad wreck north of New York City, a train’s operator was found to be unalert before speeding into a curve and derailing.
“We saw a similar situation, where there was a curve and an overspeed, if that’s what this turns out to be, but really technology has an ability to prevent this,” Hersman said.
U.S. regulators have pushed railroads to install so-called positive train control systems that automatically track velocity and can stop trains before they crash.
On Tuesday, Michelle Premaza, 33, who lives a quarter-mile away, said she was in her house when she saw and heard the crash.
“I seen a big flash and heard rolling thunder,” Premaza said. “It was crazy.”
Victims were taken to several hospitals, with about 12 listed in serious or critical condition Wednesday.
The event that injured them was sudden and violent.
Beth Davidz, of Brooklyn, New York, said she was in the third car. She said it felt as though the train was making a wide turn before it toppled on its side and slid for yards. Davidz, 35, said she felt herself falling.
“I knew I was alive because I felt dirt in my mouth,” she said.
(A previous version of this story contained an incorrect conversion of miles to kilometers.)