US investigators on Wednesday painstakingly combed through the twisted wreckage of an Amtrak train for clues as to why it derailed in Philadelphia, leaving at least six people dead and more than 200 injured.
Officials warned the death toll could rise after the crash late Tuesday along the busy northeast US rail corridor linking Washington and New York, as some of the 243 passengers and crew believed to have been on the train had not yet been accounted for.
Experts in bright orange vests from the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies were on the scene hunting for clues — and more possible victims — as analysts mined the recovered black box for possible evidence.
“We are heartbroken at what’s happened here. We’ve not experienced anything like this in modern times,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told reporters.
“We’ll get to the bottom of it and figure out what happened, why it happened, but that will take some time.”
Sam Phillips, the city’s director of emergency management, said the city’s hospitals had treated “over 200 patients last night and this morning.” Eight of the injured were in critical condition.
Reportedly among the dead were a staffer for the Associated Press and a midshipman at the US Naval Academy, according to the AP and the Washington Post. Many of the injured suffered broken bones, a hospital official said.
Witnesses who had been traveling aboard Amtrak Train 188, which went off the rails as it went into a turn, described scenes of panic and chaos, as cars tumbled over, sending passengers banging into one another and suitcases flying.
One of the train cars was completely flattened in the crash, which took place at about 9:30 pm Tuesday (0130 GMT Wednesday). Wheels lay scattered by the tracks.
Local resident Iwina Washington, 27, told AFP she saw shell-shocked survivors with blood on their faces, looking dazed, as rescue personnel converged on the scene with flashlights.
“It looked like an episode from â€˜The Walking Deadâ€™,â€ Washington said.
– Tracks, speed, crew being examined –
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators were looking at “the track, the rail signals, the operation of the train, the mechanical condition of the train (and) human performance.”
He also said the black box could give indications about how fast the train was going when it went into the curve, and whether the brakes were applied.
“There are many first responders out there that are working. They are carefully examining the equipment to see if there is anyone else in the rail cars,” Sumwalt said.
The Wall Street Journal reported that excessive speed was being looked at as a factor, citing two sources with knowledge of the ongoing investigation.
The train’s conductor was injured “to some extent” but was treated and able to give a statement to police, Nutter told reporters.
The mayor also said officials were working to reconcile the passenger manifest with the lists of injured, and officials encouraged anyone who may have left the scene without being counted to contact Amtrak.
– ‘It was awful’ –
Max Helfman, 19, said he was with his mother in the last car of the train, which did not have seatbelts, when they suddenly felt it shake. It then flipped over.
“People were thrown to the ground,” Helfman told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Chairs inside the train became unscrewed and suitcases were falling on people. My mother flew into me and I literally had to catch her. People were bleeding from their head. It was awful.”
Hydraulic tools had to be used to remove passengers from some of the most badly damaged train cars, firefighters said.
Other passengers had to kick out windows to escape, according to former Pennsylvania congressman Patrick Murphy, who was onboard.
Train services between Philadelphia and New York were likely to be suspended for the rest of the week, Nutter said.
“This is a tragedy that touches us all,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.