Fighting to stay alive. Mourning the dead. And figuring out why this came to be — how an Amtrak train could suddenly derail, sending its cars and passengers flying.
That was the stark reality Wednesday, as relatives raced to the sides of their injured loved ones and rescue workers and investigators scoured the mangled wreckage of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 in Pennsylvania.
The train left Washington on Tuesday with 238 passengers and five crew members aboard, heading for New York. But it never made it, derailing around 9:30 that night in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia.
The crash killed six people. One of them was a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman, in full uniform, heading home to New York on leave from the Annapolis, Maryland, school. A family member described him as a great person and genius whose death has left his parents “beside themselves.”
Hospitals have treated more than 200 people, at least half of whom have been released. That figure includes eight in critical condition among the 25 wounded passengers at Temple University Hospital — the closest trauma center to the crash site — according to Herb Cushing, the hospital’s medical director.
He said many passengers were injured when other passengers or objects fell on them. One of those hurt is the train’s conductor, who received medical treatment and has briefed investigators, or will soon do so, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said.
Authorities have not ruled out the possibility of more victims at the crash site.
“We are heartbroken by what we’ve experienced here,” Nutter said Wednesday morning. “We have not experienced anything like this in modern times.”
The miracle may be how some escaped relatively unscathed, given the severity of the derailment, which included the train’s engine and all seven cars.
“It is amazing,” Nutter told CNN. “I saw some people last night literally walking off that train. I don’t know how they did it.”
A U.S. Department of Transportation representative told CNN on Wednesday that the engine and two cars were left standing upright, three cars were tipped on their sides, and one was nearly flipped over on its roof. The seventh one was “leaning hard.”
Seven investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were at the site by 10 a.m. Wednesday, and more are on the way, Nutter said. They have recovered a recorder [or “black box”] and have walked through the crash scene, but much more work remains to be done.
Among other things, authorities will examine the condition of the track and the train, how the signals operated and “human performance,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said.
Speed is one issue that investigators are seriously looking at in light of the angles of the wreckage and type of damage to the cars, according to an official with direct knowledge of the investigation. The speed limit in the crash area is around 50 mph.
So far, there’s nothing to indicate the incident was an act of terrorism. And Philadelphia’s mayor said there’s no indication that another train had anything to do with the derailment.
“You have a lot of questions, we have a lot of questions,” Sumwalt told reporters late Wednesday morning. “We intend to answer many of those questions in the next 24 to 48 hours.”
The Washington-New York corridor is the busiest stretch for Amtrak nationwide. Hundreds of trains, carrying thousands of passengers, have made that trip in recent years, most of them rolling seamlessly from start to finish on a roughly 3½-hour journey.
That’s what seemed to be happening Tuesday night, passenger Daniel Wetrin told CNN.
“Everything was normal,” he said. “Then it was just chaos.”
Jeremy Wladis was in the very last car, eating, when she noticed the train starting to do “funny things. And it gradually starts getting worse and worse.”
Things started flying — phones, laptops. “Then people.”
“There were two people in the luggage rack above my head. Two women, catapulted [there].”
As she read a book in the second-to-last car, Janna D’Ambrisi said, she “felt like we were going a little too fast around a curve. The car she was in started to tip, and she was thrown onto another girl.
“People started to fall on us,” she said. “I just held on to her leg and sort of bowed my head and I was kind of praying, ‘Please make it stop.’ ”
Fortunately, D’Ambrisi’s train car didn’t tip over and she made it out safely.
The area of the crash in Philadelphia, known as Frankford Junction, was the site of one of the nation’s deadliest train accidents; the Congressional Limited crash of 1943 killed 79 people.
“It’s an extremely heavily used stretch of track,” transportation analyst Matthew L. Wald said of the area. “They have trouble keeping it in a state of good repair.”
The derailment was Amtrak’s ninth this year alone, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, and while its cause has not yet been determined, some, like Wald, are already discussing the nation’s aging rail infrastructure.
Noting President Barack Obama’s commitment to upgrading the country’s infrastructure, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the Obama administration is “hard at work” trying to figure out what caused the crash, and that their thoughts and prayers are with the families of everyone effected.
“Along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is a way of life for many,” the president said later in a statement. “From Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia to New York City and Boston, this is a tragedy that touches us all.”
For all this work to examine and address the causes of the crash, the immediate effect was on people — whether they were on the ill-fated train, knew people who were or otherwise got caught up in the aftermath, including those stuck after Amtrak suspended service between Philadelphia and New York City.
Locations for passengers and their loved ones were set up in Philadelphia and at New York’s Penn Station, where Red Cross regional CEO Josh Lockwood said about 100 people involved in the crash had come through by mid-morning.
Red Cross workers offered help dealing with the arriving passengers’ physical and mental health, according to the aid group.
The fact that some have made it to their intended destinations is an obvious plus. But that wasn’t true for everyone.
For one, dozens remain in Philadelphia-area hospitals. The fate of some is a mystery, with Nutter noting that not everyone on Amtrak’s manifest has been accounted for. He didn’t specify a number.
The missing include Rachel Jacobs, the CEO of the Philadelphia-based technology instructional company ApprenNet. Karl Okamoto, a friend and company co-founder, said that “Rachel left a meeting with the intent to board the train. As of [9:30 a.m.], no one has heard from her.”
“Thank you for your thoughts & prayers for our CEO, Rachel Jacobs,” the company later tweeted. “We are still looking for Rachel & hope she will be with her family soon.”
CNN’s Sara Sidner, Rene Marsh, Catherine E. Shoichet, Tony Marco, Janet DiGiacomo, Sam Stringer and Holly Yan contributed to this report.