The wreck of
Train 188
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The remains of one of the rail cars from Amtrak train 188 at the scene in Port Richmond.
Nothing could have prepared responders for the devastation before them.
Sunday, May 17, 2015

The train pulled out of 30th Street Station at 9:10 p.m. Tuesday, one minute late.

SOURCE: Associated Press

Pretty good, really. Less than 90 minutes to New York. On board, the new passengers settled in among the Washington crowd who two hours earlier had taken the best seats.

Rachel Jacobs, 39, phoned her husband, telling him she'd made the train. The Swarthmore grad was recently hired as CEO at an online learning start-up in University City.

David Hayes, 52, and a colleague headed straight for the cafe car. He'd just finished directing rehearsals at the Friends Center for the final concert of the Philadelphia Singers.

The Amtrak Northeast Regional train abounded with people like that - a high-IQ express of the rolling elite, educated, and accomplished.

Seat after seat held one success story after another: an olive oil entrepreneur, a college dean, a banker, a Hungarian artist, two men who'd just come from a White House-sponsored conference on Asian Heritage Month.

Two hundred thirty-eight passengers in all, plus five crew. Trenton would be next, around 9:36.

A few minutes into the run, Train 188 was rolling, with North Philly a blur outside the windows in the darkness.

In the fourth car, the club car, an assistant conductor said she heard a radio transmission. Her engineer, Brandon Bostian, was telling a SEPTA engineer a window in the Amtrak train had been "struck by something."

Duy Nguyen, 39, an associate professor in Temple University's School of Social Work, was riding in the seventh and last car. He didn't notice the steady acceleration as he chatted on the phone with his wife, Amy Dwyer. They spoke about their two kids and renovations to their Teaneck, N.J., house.

Ninety miles per hour, 100 m.p.h. The couple kept talking as the train sped into a sharply curved length of track.

Then Dwyer could no longer hear her husband.

"Duy? Duy? Hello?" she said. But all she heard was a loud noise.

It was 9:21 p.m.

JOSEPH KACZMAREK / Associated Press
'This is real bad'

Joshua Rosado, 22, was driving down Frankford Avenue toward his mother's place on Victoria Street when he heard the explosion.

At the same time, Ashley Davalos, 22, who lives on Frankford, overlooking the curve, saw her bathroom flash as though struck by lightning.

"Mom," she called to Debbie Davalos, 41, "did you see the light?"

She hadn't, but Debbie soon would notice something else: "I think every cop in Philadelphia is outside."

Sgt. Charles Beebe was first on the scene.

HUY RICHARD MACH / St. Louis Post-Dispatch, File; DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Engineer Brandon Bostian, left, as an assistant conductor in 2007. Joseph H. Boardman, Amtrak President and CEO.

He'd been an hour into his shift, driving alone in his squad car around Frankford Avenue, when his radio squawked.

Train derailment. People screaming.

The location dispatch gave was right near a freight yard. Beebe, 54, had seen derailed freight trains there before. Usually not too serious.

Still, he radioed back, said he'd check it out. He flicked on his external lights and hurried north toward the scene.

Within seconds, Beebe's radio chirped again. Dispatch was getting multiple calls about the derailment. Flooded by them.

His sense of urgency grew.

Two minutes later, Beebe hopped out of his car at the end of narrow Wheatsheaf Avenue and peered onto the tracks through a chain-link fence.

Horror.

Oh, my God, he thought, making out the scattered, hulking shell of Amtrak 188.

That's no freight train. That's a passenger train.

It was dark. Beebe was standing alone. The metal train cars looked as though they'd slid down a hill. He couldn't see any people around them. He thought hundreds could be dead.

Beebe got back onto his radio.

"This is real bad," he told dispatchers. "Send me everything you have."

BRYAN WOOLSTON / For the Inquirer
Tossed 'like a rag doll'

When a train hits a curve doing double the 50 m.p.h. limit, the physics are simple: Only catastrophe follows.

The passengers, proven people with the will and intelligence to exert control over life and make something of themselves, were in command of nothing.

Like eggs in a rolling metal box, people flew, helpless and fragile, throughout the cars. Luggage, laptops, and cellphones became projectiles shot through the air. The business car, first in line after the engine, was crumpled like a wad of aluminum foil. Blood was everywhere.

"It felt like we took a wide turn, and then suddenly there was darkness and chaos as we started tumbling," said Beth Davidz, 35, a Brooklyn media technologist with the Philadelphia news start-up Billy Penn. She'd been seated in the third car.

Passengers in the front cars felt the train sliding on its side. Down was up, seats were ripped from their metal moorings like weeds from wet soil. Smoke filled the cars along with the screams of people suffering head wounds and snapped bones.

“Once it left ground, it then hit with a thud. And I think we slid for some distance.”
Jeffrey Kutler, a Brooklyn business journalist

Jeffrey Kutler, 62, a Brooklyn business journalist who had been in the second car, said the sensation of the derailment was like taking off into the air.

"Once it left ground, it then hit with a thud," he said. "And I think we slid for some distance."

As the train tore through dirt, he said to himself: "I hope I survive this."

Andrew Brenner, 29, fresh from his going-away party at a public-relations job in Washington, remembers getting tossed "like a rag doll" as his body was heaved into an armrest. He landed hard on his back.

So many of the victims described seeing the event unfold in slow motion, a cruelty that may curse them to remember the horror in granular detail. The trauma left others addled.

"My recollection of what happened, it's really hazy," said Caleb Bonham, 28, of Washington, editor of the CampusReform.org website.

Zach Feldman, 24, chief academic officer of the New York Code + Design Academy, found himself lying on a bed of broken glass. He heard an Amtrak worker shout into her radio: "Amtrak 188 derailed, North Philly! This is not a drill, we need help immediately!"

JOSEPH KACZMAREK / Associated Press
First responders arrive

The first 911 call came in at 9:27, six minutes after the crash.

The caller was near Wheatsheaf Lane and Frankford Avenue, city dispatchers said. That's the corner where police later set up a media staging area, and where cameras and reporters from around the world camped out for days.

The phones kept ringing. In the dispatcher's office, an electronic map that tracks 911 calls lit up in the area of Frankford Junction, where the tracks curve most sharply.

Officer Daniel Cosme of the 24th District was the second to reach the fence at Frankford Junction.

The gate was chained shut. He had to wait for firefighters to break through with bolt cutters.

Now the rescuers saw the wreckage for the first time.

COLIN KERRIGAN / Philly.com
An overview of Philadelphia and the derailment scene.

The mangled train lay at the bottom of the hill. The injured were scattered on the grass. Several called for help.

There were people pinned under railcars, a dead man on the ground, and another who looked gone as well.

"Are you dead?" one rescuer asked.

"I'm not dead," the man replied. First responders hustled him up the hill.

"It just seemed unreal," said Cosme, 27. He pushed into one of the last derailed cars, which had remained largely upright.

Most of its passengers had managed to free themselves. About three remained inside. They could still walk, Cosme said. He urged them to get out.

“It felt like we took a wide turn, and then suddenly there was darkness and chaos as we started tumbling.”
Beth Davidz, 35, a Brooklyn media technologist with Billy Penn

Inside the car, the air was dusty, and Cosme battled dirt in his eyes.

The only light at the scene came from the flashlights of police officers and firefighters - LED beams, bobbing down the hill, hovering over the cars and tracks.

Cosme walked toward a group of passengers standing, dazed, about 20 feet from the cars. He waited there with them, talking, trying to keep them calm, until reinforcements arrived and a triage center could be set up.

Two passengers were badly injured - a woman with a broken shoulder and a man with a serious leg wound. The man turned to Cosme, catching the officer off guard with an out-of-the-blue question:

"Are you an Eagles fan?"

Cosme replied that he was.

"I don't think we're going to get along," the man said. "I'm a Giants fan."

The wait for medics took no more than seven minutes, but it felt much longer to Cosme.

JOSEPH KACZMAREK / Associated Press
Emergency personnel help a passenger at the scene.

The firefighters arrived with all the emergency equipment they could lug - metal-cutting saws, spine boards, stretchers.

Inside the cars, passengers looked up in relief. Firefighters worked systematically to move passengers out one by one, through doors, windows, gashes.

One man didn't want to leave his wife behind in the car. Another told firefighters he wanted to stay to help them with the evacuation.

Meanwhile, Jeremy McTiernan, 36, stood on a traffic barrier in a gap on Frankford Avenue, watching as a stream of passengers walked up from the darkened train tracks into his neighborhood.

He'd been smoking a cigarette on his front step. But when the first responders arrived on the block, he moved to get a better view of the scene.

The first wave of people he saw were carrying luggage. Well-dressed. Even laughing. It looked, he said, as if they were getting off at a stop. Maybe their train had a mechanical issue, he thought, needed to stop on the tracks.

He quickly realized the situation was much worse.

The next people walking toward him were covered in soot. They limped. Meanwhile, more police were flooding the block.

DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer; Goldberg photo by JOSEPH KACZMAREK
Top row: Dr. Amy Goldberg; Craig Murphy, of Philadelphia's Homeland Security; Noelle Foizen, of Health and Human Services; Stephen Hough, of EMS unit 32; bottom row: police officer Daniel Rivera; dispatcher Khiria Greene; Joseph Farrell, of the Philadelphia Fire Deptment; and search-and-rescue dog Wyatt.

He hopped down from the barrier and overheard a neighbor who was heading to Walmart to grab some cases of water for the emergency. McTiernan rushed into his house and gathered $30 to contribute.

He retrieved a stack of big 7-Eleven Slurpee cups from his room. McTiernan and his roommate filled them with tap water, balancing three in each hand, then walking them outside to where police were tending to passengers.

McTiernan went back in and grabbed washcloths. When those ran out, he offered up his kitchen, letting passengers use the sink.

His house became a way station as the crowd swelled. Passengers sat on his couches, charged their phones, used the bathroom.

McTiernan took pictures of the injuries of one man who said he needed proof for insurance. Two people at his sink apologized for tracking dirt in his house.

"It was kind of a whirlwind," he said.

JOSEPH KACZMAREK / Associated Press
'Organized chaos'

By 9:45, Temple University Hospital was waiting for the onslaught. Joe Rappold, 54, was on call that night as head trauma surgeon.

A career Navy surgeon who had served six tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rappold had been at Temple since his discharge in 2011. He knew from experience that in mass-casualty situations, "the most important thing is somebody has to take charge."

Staff began lining up gurneys, 20 of them, outside the doors of the ER, in the newly expanded ambulance bay. Rappold and Dave Karras, the top ER doc that night, would triage the patients as they arrived - and direct them to be taken to various parts of the ER, depending on their needs.

JOSEPH KACZMAREK / Associated Press
Philadelphia police officers help evacuate Duy Nguyen, an associate professor in Temple University's School of Social Work, who had been riding in the last car. He suffered a head laceration but was otherwise unhurt.

The most critical would go right into the trauma bays.

Staff began pouring in. Some had called, some just had heard the news and shown up. Nurses and doctors already on duty stretched their shifts.

Over the next 90 minutes, 54 patients arrived at the hospital. As a Level I trauma center, Temple was best-suited to receive the most gravely hurt. Police and fire rescuers were using every available vehicle - more than 150 passengers and crew were dispersed among seven hospitals.

Many of the younger patients came into Temple as John and Jane Does because they were either unconscious or disoriented. Some had left their wallets in their backpacks - lost in the crash.

On the whole, the patients - most with broken arms and legs and ribs - were immensely good-natured. Doctors and nurses were amazed by not only how grateful they were, but how generous.

Physician Ernest Yeh remembered several patients saying, "I'm OK, take care of the next person," when in fact they had significant injuries of their own.

Because the ER was so crowded, family members who began showing up were herded into a lounge in the medical school across the street, given pizza and water, Gatorade and power bars. Temple staffers stayed there with them, taking down medical histories and information about the loved one they were looking for.

Staffers then crossed the street and tried to find each victim.

Many family members knew to go to Temple. They'd been called by their loved ones directly, or by an ambulance driver or nurse. But other families searched from one hospital to another all night after driving down from New York or up from the D.C. area.

Some family members came back two and three times during the night, just hoping.

While the doctors worked, students on Temple's student EMT squad threw themselves into the drama.

Danielle Thor, 22, had been at school police headquarters that night, assembling tables for a conference room they use for training.

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy was on the train when it derailed.

A text came from a friend: "Have you heard about this train derailment?"

The students donned their cherry-red jackets, hopped on their bikes loaded with 40 pounds of emergency equipment, and sped up Broad Street toward Temple's hospital.

The crew had practiced for a derailment twice in the last year.

But nothing could have prepared them for this.

They helped unload patients from police vehicles, one after another:

A woman who had lost quite a bit of skin from her face.

A man, pale and sweating profusely, who doubled over in a wheelchair and clutched his chest.

A woman screaming about severe pain in her belly and hip.

As Sarah Paranich, 22, was trying to calm the woman down, she heard her story.

Somehow, the woman had flipped over in her train car, got caught on something on the ceiling, and hung upside down for what felt like forever.

"I can't even imagine how scared she was," she said.

The young EMTs quickly assessed the severity of the injuries, tagging the walking wounded green, the more seriously injured yellow, and the worst-off red.

Paranich said, "It was organized chaos."

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Scene of devastation

The injured had been evacuated to a nearby triage area by 10 p.m., when the Philadelphia Police Crime Scene Unit arrived.

The seven officers drove along a back road and parked by the tracks, near the displaced and overturned train engine.

Helicopters hovered overhead, but despite their beams, the scene was still so dark, all Sgt. Steve Crosby could see was an ocean of handheld flashlights.

Like at a rock concert before the band goes on, he thought.

The team members walked past the still-smoking engine, and picked their way among the bodies in the grass and dirt. They stepped over uprooted trees and twisted rail ties and choked on the whirls of dirt the choppers kicked up.

PAUL CHEUNG
First responders at the scene.

Crosby has served in the Crime Scene Unit for 16 years. He worked the Pier 34 collapse in 2000, the duck boat accident on the Delaware in 2010, and the Market Street building collapse in 2013. But now he struggled to comprehend the devastation before him - the enormousness of the trains up close, the damage wrought by the speed and massive weight.

"Surreal," he later said.

The officers began to document the devastation.

There was a man in the grass, and another in the dirt by car No. 2. Soot-blackened bodies lay under car No. 3. A woman's legs jutted out from the debris, her pink-painted toenails visible in the dim light.

And the polished white shoes of naval midshipman Justin Zemser, his uniform shirt still tucked inside his pants, his legs crossed as though he were napping.

Cellphones rang in the wreckage. Texted entreaties lit up devices: Please, please call me.

In the engineer's cab, Crosby found cracks in the windows and blood on the controls.

JOSEPH KACZMAREK / Associated Press
Unable to remember

Incredibly, city officials had spent the previous day acting out a disaster scenario — a training exercise to prepare for this fall’s papal visit.

Public Safety Director Mike Resnick returned a call from Samantha Phillips, the city’s director of the Office of Emergency Management.

“You’re not going to believe this, but we have a mass casualty event.”
Samantha Phillips, the city’s director of the Office of Emergency Management, acting out a disaster scenario in a training exercise

"You're not going to believe this," she told him, "but we have a mass-casualty event."

Resnick paused. "Get out of here," he told her.

On Tuesday night, they put their new plan into action. OEM workers set up a command center, and police and firefighters flooded the scene of the accident.

Of immediate concern were the live wires the train had snapped as it hurtled into the underbrush - the electrical lines still dangled above the cars, even as rescue workers scrambled over them.

Officials also had to be sure the crash was an accident, that there wasn't a bomb at the site or farther down the tracks. A sweep of the area by the police Homeland Security Unit came back all clear.

The victims of the derailment. Top row, from left: Giuseppe Piras, Rachel Jacobs, Justin Zemser, Jim Gaines. Bottom row, from left: Derrick Griffith, Bob Gildersleeve, Laura Finamore, and Abid Gilani. | More photos

Cadaver dogs began sniffing the wreckage for bodies. They wouldn't find 45-year-old Ecolab executive Bob Gildersleeve Jr., until Thursday morning, in the crumpled second car. In all, eight people died on Train 188, one of them Rachel Jacobs, the new CEO of ApprenNET.

As for David Hayes, the music director, he wound up crawling out of the cafe car with minor bruises, then checked himself into a hotel early Wednesday morning.

When Duy Nguyen realized he was still in Pennsylvania, he asked police to take him to Temple, where he taught. First, he borrowed a phone and called his wife. He was bleeding badly from a gash to his head, but otherwise he was OK.

"I love you," she told him. "I love you," he said back, and she got in her car.

Around 1 a.m. Wednesday, Brandon Bostian lay in bed at Einstein Medical Center, where two police officers stood over him, asking him questions.

Bostian, the engineer who operated the train, told them he couldn't remember what happened, his memory wiped clean by a concussion.

By 4 a.m. in Temple's ER, a man came in looking for his wife, who was one of the critical patients. At that point, the crush had died down, and families were allowed in the ER.

"We're bringing you right over," Susan Coull, in charge of the family lounge, told him.

Throughout the night, Coull had seen incredible moments of joy as victims and families reunited, hugging and weeping, many discharged and heading home.

But she'll remember the sadness, too, and the desperation on the faces of family members fearing the worst.

Related graphics

Eight hours later, Lucas Ferrer, a chief trauma resident at Temple, was finally heading home. He'd arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m. Tuesday, then worked 30 hours straight, not finishing with his last Amtrak patient until noon Wednesday.

"Something like this comes along," Ferrer said, "and you realize the things you've learned, the things you can do to help other people, and it feels really good."

Ferrer went back to his place in the Art Museum area. But the wreck of Train 188 was still on his mind, his brain processing and reprocessing the events of the long night. Unable to rest, he went out and ran four miles.

Then he returned home, collapsed in his bed, and fell fast asleep.

This article was written by Alfred Lubrano based on reporting by Michael Boren, Angelo Fichera, Jeff Gammage, Caitlin McCabe, Laura McCrystal, Mike Newall, Chris Palmer, Maria Panaritis, Don Sapatkin, Susan Snyder, Julia Terruso, Claudia Vargas, Mike Vitez, and Aubrey Whelan.

alubrano@phillynews.com 215-854-4969 @AlfredLubrano


Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the passengers. He is Andrew Brenner.

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