UPDATE: 2 killed in train crash near Philadelphia were Amtrak workers

This photo shows an Amtrak train following an accident Sunday

This photo shows an Amtrak train following an accident Sunday

An Amtrak train struck a piece of construction equipment just south of Philadelphia on Sunday causing a derailment that killed two maintenance workers and injuring more than 30 passengers, according to authorities.

Congressman Bob Brady, whose district includes the site of the derailment, told reporters that he joined investigators in examining the train’s cars in the aftermath of the crash. Leading up to the incident, he speculated that, “there must have been some kind of communication failure.”

He added that, “maybe it’s the lack of employment on a Sunday. I don’t know, but we have to find out, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Brady said.

“Everybody should know when a train’s coming. They’re on schedule. It ain’t hard to figure out,” Brady said. “If I’m working on the track, I wanna know when the train’s coming. It’s a straight track, you could probably see it. “

He said it’s a tragic day for the families of the two maintenance workers who died, but that “it could’ve been a lot, lot, worse.”

He said nearly everyone who has been admitted to local hospitals is expected to be released before the end of the night. 

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Ryan Frigo said at a briefing on Sunday that around 7:50 a.m., Amtrak train 89 struck the heavy piece of equipment. About 330 passengers were on board with 7 crew members.

Key questions now include why the backhoe was on an active track, and whether the train was traveling on the proper track. Additionally, whether there were signal problems before the collision. But Frigo sidestepped nearly all questions on Sunday night, saying it’s just too early to say. 

“We’re still gathering facts at this time,” Frigo said. “We will be looking at mechanical, operations, signal, track, human performance and survival factors,” he said. 

Just before 6:15 a.m., Allyson Aborn’s husband, Bruce Doniger, dropped her off at Penn Station to catch the Washington-bound train. The couple’s daughter-in-law who lives in Bethesda was expecting a baby.

Aborn, 68, a psychotherapist outside of New York City, was relaxing with her eyes closed in the second car when suddenly she felt the train’s brakes slam, throwing her into the seat in front of her.

Then she looked up.

“I saw a huge fireball outside of the window and smoke pouring in,” said Aborn. The frightening sight made her scream.

The sense of panic was heightened by how relatively quiet her car was compared to the next car up.

“In the car ahead of me, the conductor yelled for everyone to get down under their seats, ” she said. “But there was nobody in my car to yell that to us.”

She and others then starting filing out of the train and waited for emergency responders to arrive, who assisted dozens of passengers across a field and small brook and to a local shelter. After being examined, she took a Lyft to Wilmington, Delaware and she was able to catch a train back to her home in Scarsdale, New York.

Aborn only sustained a cut on her knee and is doing well otherwise.

Meanwhile, her newly born grandson was born healthy, the couple reports, eight pounds, 13 ounces.

“It’s a good ending to a crappy story,” Doninger said. He said Aborn had also purchased a plane ticket to Washington, but figured Amtrak would get her to the hospital more quickly.

“It’s the luck of the draw I guess,” he said. “How does this happen?

John Rison of Richmond Virginia was a passenger on the train.

“We were just riding along there was a huge felt like a crash, things went flying,there was smoke, people came to our car, the windows were blowing out in the couple of the cars.”

Linton Holmes was a passenger near the rear of the Amtrak train having just boarded in Philadelphia, en route to his home in North Carolina. He describes the scene as the train hit construction equipment.

“There was like a big explosion then there was a fire and the windows bursted out and some people were cut up there were minor injuries, then we just waited, we walked from the tracks to the church.”

In addition to the two people killed, Mike Tolbert, spokesman for Amtrak, said approximately 31 passengers were transported to area hospitals. None of the injuries are considered life-threatening.

Local emergency responders were on the scene and the crash is being investigated. Federal Railroad Administration officials had arrived at the scene, said Matthew Lehner, a spokesman for the agency.

Ari Ne’eman, a disability rights activist heading to Washington after speaking at an event in New York, said he was in the second car at the time of the crash.

“The car started shaking wildly, there was a smell of smoke, it looked like there was a small fire and then the window across from us blew out,” said Ne’eman, 28, of Silver Spring, Maryland.

Some of the passengers started to get off after the train stopped, but the conductor quickly stopped them. Officials started evacuateing people to the rear of the train and then off and to a local church.

“It was a very frightening experience. I’m frankly very glad that I was not on the first car,” where there were injuries, he said. “The moment that the car stopped, I said Shema, a Jewish prayer … I was just so thankful that the train had come to a stop and we were OK.”

Service on the Northeast Corridor between Wilmington and Philadelphia has been suspended.

Amtrak says it hopes to restore service this afternoon.  New Jersey Transit and SEPTA are offering to honor Amtrak tickets to help move people to New York from Philadelphia, but doing so requires switching trains in Trenton.

Amtrak train 89 was heading from New York to Savannah, Georgia, when it hit a backhoe that was on the track in Chester, about 15 miles outside of Philadelphia, officials said. The crash happened around 8 a.m.

This derailment comes almost a year after an Amtrak train originating from Washington D.C. bound for New York City derailed in Philadelphia. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured in the May 12 crash. The exact cause of that crash is still under investigation, but authorities have said the train had been traveling twice the speed limit.

Persons with questions about their friends and family aboard this train have a special number to call for information: 800-523-9101.

WHYY’s Bobby Allyn contributed to this report 

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