Firefighters tell of devastation, bravery at derailment scene

They describe a woman hanging upside down from the ceiling of the train car, and a man who had a heart attack on scene


The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — There was a body in the grass. More under the cars. The injured were scattered on the ground.

The battered passenger cars of Amtrak Train 188 had jumped the tracks just minutes before, and lay at odd angles in a scene emergency responders described as beyond anything they had seen before — or want to see again.

“Carnage,” one said. “Steel.”

The first responders had pushed through the fence at Frankford Junction on Tuesday evening, and found the New York City-bound train at the foot of the hill.

Two of the men gave interviews to The Philadelphia Inquirer on condition of anonymity, citing Fire Department policy. They spoke of the heroism of firefighters who arrived on the scene to pull trapped passengers from mangled cars; of police officers who rushed into the train or drove patients to hospitals by the dozens in wagons; of passengers who, as their rescuers broke into the cars, asked them to first help the more injured around them.

They praised the collective effort of hundreds of responders from various agencies, working together at a site of devastation.

Seven people are confirmed dead, a number officials said they fear will rise. More than 200 people were taken to hospitals.

“I don’t know if there is a right word to describe what goes through a person’s mind when you see that,” one fire source said.

But they are trained to overcome that shock, no matter how tremendous.

Running toward the cars, first responders found the injured and the dead in the grass — passengers who had been thrown from the car. One described a scene that would not leave his mind: others calling him to help a man lying on the ground, who they did not realize was already dead.

He moved on to the next victim.

First responders scrambled to the passenger cars, squeezing through what openings they could, past broken windows, a jammed door with a crevice like a coin slot. In one car, three passengers were trapped, upside down, between the tops of their seats and the ceiling “like sardines.”

Four bodies were pinned under another car, a fire source said.

“You look in and see a lot of scared, frightened, injured people,” said one fire rescuer. “And you know then that there’s nothing you can do but just get them out one at a time.”

The air inside the car was hot and thick, he said. Firefighters and police officers gasped in the heat as they moved through the cramped space, navigating through a labyrinth of debris — spilled luggage and overturned seats.

“Your orientation is upside down,” one fire source said. “Imagine putting your desk on the ceiling and trying to get the stuff out of your desk. Everything’s backward.”

They stepped forward, through gaps in the seats, to reach one victim, and balanced themselves again to reach another.

The responders had their own safety to worry about, too. Wires, still electrified, dangled above the cars. A cluster of tank cars loomed just beyond the crash site.

Police and firefighters helped to secure exit and entry points to the crash site to avoid those hazards, while beyond the train, passengers filed into a staging area on Wheatsheaf Lane in Port Richmond.

These were the bloodied and bruised, but they were walking on their own. You could tell the difference between civilians and victims, one fire source said, by the look in their eyes — those who had been on the train simply stared ahead. They were almost calm.

More seriously injured victims, strapped to back boards, were loaded into ambulances. Others were taken from the scene in police wagons, SEPTA buses, squad cars.

One fire source choked up, recalling the scene and those who rushed to help — “the totality of it.”

He was proud, he said, to have done what he could.

Inside the train, emergency responders worked systematically to remove the injured — like an assembly line, one said. In one car, passengers directed firefighters to help others, though almost all of them were injured themselves. A broken shoulder. A broken leg. Lacerations. A man who was unable to move, who emergency workers feared was paralyzed.

“Nobody’s even dealt with anything like this,” one fire source said. “This is what you would call a career event. If you see one of these, you do what you have to, and hopefully you never see one again.”

They worked through the night. They worked until time seemed to fold in on itself, sometimes slowing down, sometimes speeding up.

They worked until 3 a.m., when relief arrived, and they went home to rest. To prepare for the next night’s shift.

Copyright 2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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