The engineer in the Amtrak derailment that killed eight people and injured more than 200 in Philadelphia last year described a surreal experience as the train careered around a curve at twice the authorized speed before it derailed, the National Transportation Safety Board said in documents released Monday.
“The memory from there is very vague,” engineer Brandon Bostian, 32, told investigators in November, six months after the worst Amtrak crash in 22 years. “The only word, and I hesitate to use the word ‘dreamlike’ because it sounds like I was asleep, and I don’t believe that I was asleep at all.”
Instead, Bostian said, he had a “very foggy memory” of what went on.
“The memory doesn’t include much visual memory. I don’t remember hearing much. It was more of a feeling,” he said. “I remember feeling my body lurch to the right, towards the right side of the engine. I remember feeling as though I was going too fast around a curve. In response to that feeling, I put the train brake on.”
At that moment — seconds before the engine and several of the seven cars it was pulling left the tracks — the train was going 106 miles per hour, more than twice the 50 mph limit for the sharp curve to the left, the train’s event recorder indicated.
The NTSB report shows that Bostian was concerned by a report that rocks were being thrown as trains passed through the Philadelphia neighborhood.
“I was a little bit concerned for my safety,” he told investigators.
Bostian tested negative for drugs and alcohol after the crash, and the NTSB said he was not using his cellphone.
The NTSB report ruled out a number of factors that might have caused the train to derail.
“There were no issues with the locomotive, there were no issues with the track, there were no issues with the signals,” said a senior NTSB official who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he said the report should speak for itself.
Bostian spoke with NTSB investigators on two occasions, once shortly after the May derailment and again last fall.
“He was extremely cooperative,” the NTSB official said.
The NTSB report is the second of three that the safety agency will produce on its investigation of the derailment. Last May it issued a brief outline of the facts known at that time, on Monday it provided a detailed examination, and this spring the board will announce its determination of the accident’s probable cause.
“No conclusions about how and why the accident occurred should be drawn from this [report],” the NTSB official said. “There may be some new facts included in [Monday’s report], but nothing that’s really earth-shattering and no smoking guns.”
The report acknowledged a critical fact on which Amtrak, the NTSB and federal regulators had agreed on from the outset: The derailment could have been avoided if an automatic braking system know as positive train control (PTC) had been in place.
Amtrak Train 188 had begun its journey north from Washington’s Union Station at 7:10 p.m. May 12, carrying many passengers of the pin-striped sort who make day trips to conduct business in the nation’s capital. For more than two hours, it moved without incident, making designated stops and carrying 258 people by the time it departed Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station for New York..
Bostian was at the controls as the engine and seven cars rattled across the Schuylkill River bridge and gained speed as it crossed North Philadelphia, first through a gentle curve to the east and heading toward a sharp curve to the north at Frankford Junction.
“You wouldn’t be fooled into thinking the track continued going straight,” he told investigators during the November interview. “Because it’s just a black abyss on the other side of the curve.”
Bostian slammed on the emergency brake as the train hurtled into the northbound turn, but it came too late to keep the train on track. His lawyer said afterward that Bostian had suffered a concussion and had no memory of the few seconds immediately before the wreck.
“Unfortunately, the last memory I have on the way back is approaching and passing the [station] platforms in North Philadelphia,” Bostian told investigators during his initial interview with them last May. “I remember turning on the bell, and the next thing that I remember is when I came to my senses I was standing up in the locomotive cab after the accident.”
He recalled calling for help:
“I got my cellphone out of my bag. I turned it on. When it came on, while it was powering up, I think I got off the engine and walked towards some passengers that I heard. When the phone came on, I turned off airplane mode, and then when it reconnected with the network, I called 911 and I said that the — that a train had derailed. And at the time I did not know what my location was. The 911 operator said that it had been reported,” he said.
Bostian’s memory failure appeared to be substantiated by Joseph Brennan, an Amtrak dispatcher who had boarded the train as a passenger, on his way to work. He described for investigators an encounter with Bostian after the wreck.
“I saw this one guy, he was sitting down on the ground, he was — head was busted up pretty good and everything, but I saw the Amtrak, the badge, the necklace,” Brennan said. “And I saw he had a cellphone in his hand, and I asked him, I said, ‘Listen, I work for Amtrak, too. I’m a dispatcher. Can I use your cellphone?’ ”
After Brennan called home he renewed his conversation with Bostian.
“I had no idea who he was. And when I asked him, I said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ He says, I was the engineer of this train.' And he was pretty shooken up. But he just didn’t really recall anything and was just really upset about everything and I just kind of left it at that.”
The NTSB report explores the fact that another passenger train in the area that night, operated by the commuter rail line SEPTA, had been hit by debris.
“Investigators reviewed the tapes of radio communications of the last 7 minutes before the [Amtrak] accident,” according to the NTSB. “The Amtrak engineer told investigators that he overheard these communications, and also made one radio transmission during this time.”
It was a dramatic scene.
“Something hit our windshield. I don’t know if somebody threw something, or somebody — but our windshield is shattered,” said the SEPTA commuter train engineer at 9:13 p.m.
Then about a minute later: “I just got glass in my face.”
The back-and-forth continued. At 9:18, a dispatcher was in radio contact with the SEPTA engineer about whether the engineer needed medical attention.
Roughly 21/2 minutes later, Amtrak 188 crashed.
When Bostian was interviewed on the scene, he “discussed his concern for the SEPTA engineer,” according to the NTSB.
“The engineer on SEPTA sounded very upset and it sounded like the dispatcher was trying to get clear information as to whether or not he needed medical help,” Bostian said.
Bostian added, however, that “there’s been so many times where I’ve had reports of rocks that I haven’t seen anything, that I felt like it was unlikely that it would impact me.”
But Bostian was worried about his fellow engineer, and aware of how serious glass injuries could be.
“I was really concerned for the SEPTA engineer. I had a coworker in Oakland that had glass impact his eye from hitting a tractor-trailer, and I know how terrible that is,” Bostian said.