Response crews are set to continue on Thursday their search for more victims and clues to what happened amid the mangled wreckage of a train that derailed in Philadelphia — killing at least seven people and injuing more than 200 — as Amtrak data showed that the train was traveling at more than twice the legal speed limit at the point it entered a dangerous curve.
Authorities confirmed Wednesday that the train’s data recorders have been recovered and said that they expected them to yield crucial information, including how fast the train was going as it rounded a sharp curve and derailed in the city's working-class Port Richmond section shortly after 9 p.m. Emergency workers pulled another body from the wreckage Wednesday, raising the death toll to seven.
“It's a devastating scene. There are many first responders out there. They are working. They are examining the equipment, seeing if there are any more people in the rail cars,” Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB said.
Data from Amtrak's own "Track a Train" feature showed the train was traveling at 106 mph as it headed into a curve designed for 50 mph. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed later Wednesday that preliminary data showed the train's speed exceeded 100 mph prior to its derailment.
The train's engineer applied the emergency brakes moments before the crash but slowed the train to only 102 mph by the time the locomotive's black box stopped recording data, said Sumwalt.
The engineer, whose name was not released, refused to give a statement to law enforcement and left a police precinct with a lawyer, police said. Sumwalt said federal accident investigators want to talk to him but will give him a day or two to recover from the shock of the accident.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said some people were unaccounted for but cautioned that some passengers listed on the Amtrak manifest might not have boarded the train, while others might not have checked in with authorities.
"We will not cease our efforts until we go through every vehicle," the mayor said.
Of the seven known dead, one was an Associated Press employee, and another was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. The third was a Wells Fargo executive, the fourth was CEO of an education startup and the fifth was a college administrator. The others have not been publicly identified.
At least one person still missing from the crash has been identified by friends and family members.
Sumwalt promised a wide-ranging probe into what went wrong. “We’re looking at the track, the train signals, the operation of the train, the mechanical condition of the train, human performance,” he said. “We’re setting up a multidisciplinary investigation to try to understand the factors that led to this accident.”
Train 188 was en route from Washington, D.C., to New York City with 243 people on board when it lurched to the right and derailed at a notorious curve not far from the scene of one of the nation’s deadliest train wrecks more than 70 years ago.
The conductor survived and was expected to give a statement to police. The train had a video camera on its front end that could yield clues to what happened, Sumwalt said.
Passengers scrambled through the windows of toppled cars to escape. One of the seven cars was severely mangled. Hospitals treated more than 200 people for injuries, including burns and broken bones.
The accident closed the nation’s busiest rail corridor, between New York and Washington, as federal investigators arrived to begin examining the wreckage, tracks and signals.
Passenger Jillian Jorgensen, 27, was seated in the quiet car — the second passenger car — and said the train was going “fast enough for me to be worried” when it began to lurch to the right.
She said the train derailed, the lights went out, and she was thrown from her seat. She said she “flew across the train” and landed under some seats that had apparently broken loose from the floor.
Jorgensen, a reporter for The New York Observer who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, said she wriggled free as fellow passengers screamed. She saw one man lying still, his face covered in blood, and a woman with a broken leg.
“The scene in the car I was in was total disarray, and people were clearly in a great deal of pain,” she added.
Early Wednesday, authorities on the scene seemed to be girding for a long haul. Several portable toilets were delivered for investigators and recovery workers. Heavy equipment was brought in, and Amtrak workers in hard hats walked around the wreck.
All seven train cars, including the engine, were in “various stages of disarray,” Nutter said. He said there were cars that were “completely overturned, on their side, ripped apart.”
Gaby Rudy, an 18-year-old from Livingston, New Jersey, was headed home from George Washington University. She said she was nearly asleep when she suddenly felt the train “fall off the track.”
The next few minutes were filled with broken glass and smoke, said Rudy, who sustained minor injuries. “They told us we had to run away from the train in case another train came,” she said.
Another passenger, Daniel Wetrin, was among more than a dozen people taken to a nearby elementary school. “I think the fact that I walked off kind of made it even more surreal, because a lot of people didn’t walk off,” he said. “I walked off as if, like, I was in a movie. There were people standing around, people with bloody faces. There were people, chairs, tables mangled about in the compartment ... power cables all buckled down as you stepped off the train.”
Several people, including one man complaining of neck pain, were rolled away on stretchers. Others wobbled as they walked away or were put on buses. An elderly woman was given oxygen.
The Port Richmond neighborhood is a mix of warehouses, industrial buildings and homes. The section of track where the wreck happened is known as Frankford Junction. It is not far from the site of the 1943 derailment of the Congressional Limited, from Washington to New York, which killed 79 people.
Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor line between Washington and Boston serves 11.6 million passengers a year.
Nutter, citing the mangled train tracks and downed wires, said, “There’s no circumstance under which there would be any Amtrak service this week through Philadelphia.”
Al Jazeera and wire services