CHESTER, Pennsylvania — Strong evidence suggests that two Amtrak construction workers killed in a train crash made a “colossal” mistake by being on the wrong line, a source close to the investigation said Monday.
The crash occurred Sunday morning when an Amtrak train carrying 341 people slammed into a backhoe on the track south of Philadelphia, killing the two construction workers.
Another 37 people were injured and treated for minor scrapes and bruises, said Aigner Cleveland, press secretary for the city of Chester.
Investigators will try to determine why the construction workers may have been on wrong line, which was considered “active,” the source said.
Amtrak has a 12-step procedure for construction work on rail lines. The investigation will determine whether a mistake was made in that procedure, the source said.
Construction work is typically performed on Sundays, the source said, and it’s not uncommon for crews to work on active tracks. But on Sunday, the workers were on a large piece of machinery, so they might not have been able to react immediately to the oncoming train.
The two construction workers were Amtrak veterans — one had worked for the rail service for about 40 years, the other for 20 years, said U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pennsylvania. Brady said he spoke with Amtrak when he toured the scene Sunday.
He said the workers were performing routine maintenance at the time.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will be looking at multiple factors that may have played into the crash: mechanical, operations, signal, track and human performance.
Ryan Frigo, the National Transportation Safety Board official in charge of investigating the crash, said the event data recorder and forward-facing and inward-facing video from the locomotive have been recovered.
‘Like a nightmare’
Cristine Starke said the crash felt like an explosion.
“I think we crumbled under the pressure,” she told CNN. “There’s a hole, and it looks as if the train bent, and that was about 2 feet in front of me. It felt like an explosion. I ended up on the ground.”
The debris was so thick that it looked like snow on the windows, she said.
Even before the crash, Glenn Hills said he knew something was wrong.
He didn’t see the backhoe that lay ahead on the track. But “there was a lot of debris in the track, and we started driving through that,” the Brooklyn resident said. “There was a lot of gravel noise.”
But the mess wasn’t confined to the track, Hills said.
“I looked outside, and it looked like we were in this brown cloud,” he said, speculating that the dustiness came from construction or high winds. “We were rolling into this storm, this sandstorm.”
That’s when passengers started panicking. Then the train slammed into the backhoe.
Hills said the impact didn’t feel severe from the second passenger car, where he was sitting.
“There was tremendous impact on the first car,” he said, adding that the roof of that car was torn open and several windows were broken.
“It feels like a nightmare,” he said. “It felt like this is that experience that I’ve feared in the past.”
Three accidents, one day
In about 12 hours, there were three train accidents — including the Chester crash — in the United States on Sunday.
Another incident occurred in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, an Amtrak spokesman said. A trespasser was struck and injured Sunday evening.
And in the small Illinois town of Somonauk, a 28-year-old was killed when an Amtrak train struck a vehicle at a roadway crossing, authorities said.
Service resumes, with delays
Amtrak said that trains will run as regularly scheduled Monday but that there would be some delays between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware.
The crash came less than a month after an Amtrak train traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles derailed in Kansas, injuring 32 people.
It also came almost a year after another Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia — one that left eight people dead and more than 200 injured.
Sunday’s crash near Philadelphia made Hills consider whether he should fly more.
“I rely on Amtrak a lot, and I travel for my job in the Northeast Corridor a lot,” said Hills, who works in the specialty food industry. “This incident has really fed my fears.”
But is it enough to make him stop riding trains?
“Unfortunately, no. We rely on it too much in this part of the country.”