(above) Credit Julio Cortez/Associated Press
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Written by Dave Philipps and Emma G. Fitzsimmons
PHILADELPHIA — The Amtrak train that derailed Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring more than 200, may have been struck by an object before it careened off the tracks, an assistant conductor on the train told investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.
At a news conference on Friday, Robert L. Sumwalt, the safety board official who is leading the investigation, said an assistant conductor had reported that she believed she heard a radio transmission in which an engineer on a regional line said his train had been struck by a projectile and the engineer on the Amtrak train replied that his had been struck, too.
Mr. Sumwalt said that investigators had found a fist-size circular area of impact on the left side of the Amtrak train’s windshield and that they had asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to analyze it. He said that the F.B.I. had been called in because it has the forensics expertise needed for the investigation, but that it had not yet begun its analysis.
He said that investigators had also interviewed the engineer and found him “extremely cooperative,” and that the engineer had said he was not fatigued or ill at the time of the accident. But he could not remember anything about the derailment.
Investigators asked the engineer, Brandon Bostian, whether he recalled any projectiles, and he said he did not.
“He was specifically asked that question, and he did not recall anything of that sort,” Mr. Sumwalt said. “But then again, he reported that he does not have any recollection of anything past North Philadelphia.”
The assistant conductor, however, who was working in the cafe car, heard Mr. Bostian talking to an engineer on the Septa regional rail line who said his train had been “hit by a rock or shot at,” according to Mr. Sumwalt. She said she thought she heard Mr. Bostian reply that his train had also been struck.
“Right after she recalled hearing this conversation between her engineer and the Septa engineer, she said she felt a rumbling, and her train leaned over and her car went over on its side,” Mr. Sumwalt said.
Jerri Williams, a spokeswoman at Septa, confirmed that the windshield of one of its trains had been shattered by a projectile near the North Philadelphia station about 9:10 p.m. on Tuesday, about 12 minutes before the Amtrak train derailed.
“We have reports of trains’ being struck by objects in this area about two to three times a month,” Ms. Williams said. Mostly, she said, the objects are thrown by children and do no damage.
The safety board has asked to interview the engineer of the Septa train that was hit by the projectile, and Septa is cooperating, Ms. Williams said.
For days, speculation about the cause of the accident has centered on Mr. Bostian. Investigators reported earlier this week that the train accelerated suddenly a minute before the derailment and that Mr. Bostian applied the emergency brake seconds before the cars careened off the tracks, striking nearby utility poles.
On Friday, Mr. Sumwalt said that the engineer, accompanied by his lawyer, had been open with investigators and had demonstrated a “very good working knowledge” of the proper procedures and speeds for the rail line, but that he did not remember the accident.
“He recalls ringing the train bell as he went through North Philadelphia Station, as required,” Mr. Sumwalt said. “He has no recollection of anything past that.”
Investigators said that Mr. Bostian had been “extremely” cooperative during his interview and that he had “reported no problems with his train handling.”
A junior conductor was in the back of the train and reported that his radio was not working, so he was unable to hear the engineer, Mr. Sumwalt said. He told investigators he felt shaking, then two large impacts that dislodged seats.
Both conductors said they had confidence in the engineer, calling him “very professional.”
Mr. Bostian had been on this route only for several weeks, investigators said, working five days a week. The derailment culminated what had already been a difficult day for him.
Tuesday afternoon, before the accident, Mr. Bostian was driving an Acela Express train from New York to Washington when the electronic signals malfunctioned, forcing him to carry out a long series of safety procedures, including slowing the train, said Karl Edler, the chairman of the Washington branch of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and a longtime operator on the Northeast Corridor. Mr. Sumwalt confirmed the problem on that trip.
Mr. Bostian was able to pull safely into Washington using the signals he could see on the trackside, but he was 30 minutes behind schedule.
Because of the delay, Mr. Bostian only had an hour of rest, most of which was probably taken up by switching trains, filling out paperwork and doing equipment checks, Mr. Edler said.
As details of the derailment emerged, at least 20 passengers remained in area hospitals on Friday, with five in critical condition.
On Long Island, the first of the funerals for the eight riders who died was held for 20-year-old Justin Zemser, a second-year midshipman at the United States Naval Academy.
And on Thursday, an injured Amtrak worker filed the first lawsuit against Amtrak in the derailment, charging reckless conduct and negligence.
As other passengers began to contact lawyers, legal experts said that a 1997 law passed by Congress would limit the amount of money they could receive for medical expenses and economic losses. The law set a $200 million cap on damages for passenger injuries or deaths in a single rail accident.
With eight people killed and scores injured, the claims could easily exceed $200 million. Paul R. Kiesel, a lawyer who represented victims in the 2008 Metrolink crash in California, said the money would not go far enough to compensate victims whose lives will never be the same.
“The cap will without question come into play, and those who were injured will undoubtedly receive a fraction of their actual damages — economic, medical, lost wages and otherwise,” he said.
Several lawyers in New York and Pennsylvania said victims of the derailment had contacted them. Philip Russotti, a lawyer whose firm has represented victims in recent rail accidents in New York, said the firm was planning to meet with two passengers from New York who sustained head injuries.
“I think it’s absolutely unfair to have railway companies — who have the responsibility of ensuring the safety of so many passengers, and given the dangers inherent in traveling at the speed they do — to have their liability limited,” he said.
SOURCE: The New York Times