Witness to Amtrak 188 crash: Train missed 'tanker by maybe 50 yards'

Passenger: 'This is a nightmare'
Passenger: 'This is a nightmare'

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Story highlights

  • At least 7 people killed and more than 200 injured after train derails near Philadelphia
  • Train looked like "a tin can that was crushed & ripped apart," witness writes
  • "There were a lot of fractures -- arms, shoulders, all kinds of fractures," says nurse on the train

(CNN)Rebecca Bibb awoke alongside the mangled Amtrak commuter train with no recollection of the carnage and chaos that had just unfolded.

"The shoes, my shoes -- are not my shoes. I lost my shoes. A lady gave me my shoes," a distraught Bibb told CNN affiliate KYW.
    She recalls being on the train, in the third car from the back -- and then, nothing.
    "I don't remember anything. I did not hear any noise, did not see anything. When I started hearing people, I was on the side (of the crash scene), and someone told me I'd been delirious and that they had carried me off," she told the station.
    When Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, it tore apart passenger cars, sending seven of them careening off the tracks. At least four toppled over, and some cars were smashed like aluminum cans. The rails were uprooted, and the badly damaged engine was left standing upright.
    At least seven people were killed and 200 more were sent to six area hospitals -- some with critical injuries, authorities said. About 76 passengers were treated and released.
    Journalist Beth Davidz of Brooklyn was one of those fortunate enough to be released. To hear her Twitter feed tell it, she was on the phone when she boarded the train and thus chose not to sit in the "quiet car," which was one of the most damaged in the wreck.
    At about 3 a.m., she tweeted she had been released from the hospital -- "no wallet, one shoe, so grateful" -- and later thanked CNN affiliate WPIX for helping her find a ride home.

    Speed a factor?

    Scott Lauman, who lives in the Port Richmond neighborhood where the train crashed, told KYW that the tracks curve around a warehouse, and when the train reached the bend, "it looks like the engine just kept going straight, right off the curve, right down the hill and all of the cars just followed with it. And the engine was all the way over into the train yard."
    'Violent scene' near Amtrak train crash site
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    The train hit power lines and wiped out a support for a pedestrian bridge, leaving it hanging, Lauman told the station.
    "They were pulling people, just lifeless," he said of the rescue efforts.
    But it could have been far worse in Lauman's estimation.
    "It missed that parked tanker by maybe 50 yards," he told KYW. "An Amtrak guy came by and he was telling me it turns out those tankers are full, and if that engine would've hit that tanker, it would've set off an explosion like no other."
    Khaled Kayed, a volunteer with the Muslim-American Society, lives near the crash site and was on the scene before police began taping off the area. He saw many passengers with head injuries amid the chaos, he told CNN in an email.
    "When we first got on to the scene we could see people laying on the ground covered in blood," he wrote. "The scene was very disturbing! It looked like something straight out of a movie. When we got on the tracks you could see the carnage. The train could only be described as a tin can that was crushed & ripped apart. Anywhere you look you could see pieces of the train all around you. You could see some people trying to crawl out due to the train cars upside down & on their sides."
    The train was traveling about 106 mph as it headed into a left turn, officials said. The speed limit immediately before the curve was 80 mph. Passenger Janna D'Ambrisi said she thought the train was going "a little too fast around a curve."
    "Then there was a jolt. And immediately you could tell the train derailed," she said. "I was thrown into the girl next to me, sitting in the window seat. The train started to tip that way, to the right. And people on the other side of the train started to fall on us."
    Moments later, she heard a banging from the bathroom. A man inside was screaming.
    "He was trying to unlock the door, but it was stuck," D'Ambrisi said. The metal must have been bent."
    The stretch of track where the train derailed was not equipped with an automated speed control system called positive train control, federal officials said.

    'Everything flying'

    Jeremy Wladis was on the last car of the train. He had been in Washington for work, and he was returning home to New York.
    Amtrak passengers: It was complete chaos
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    Then he felt the jolt. The train was leaving the tracks.
    Wladis, 51, saw "phones, laptops, everything flying," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
    "There were women launched up in the luggage rack," he said. "I don't even know how they got there."
    Once the train came to a rest, he and others helped the women down and they made their escape.
    Another passenger, Daniel Wetrin, 37 of New York, told the paper that the initial shock was gentle "compared to what came next."
    "Within two seconds, it was chaos," he said.
    Andrew Cheng, visiting from Singapore, was traveling with 14 relatives when he was thrown to the ground like a rag doll, along with other passengers, he told KYW.
    "Some were piling on top of the others," he said, adding that he and his family members were able to walk away from the incident. "We know that we counted all the members. They're all there. I can't ask for more. That's good enough."
    Joan Helfman thought her ribs were probably broken, but, as a nurse, her mind was on the others who were hurt.
    "I saw so many head injuries and bloody faces," she told KYW. "There were a lot of fractures -- arms, shoulders, all kinds of fractures."
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    Helfman couldn't believe the destruction.
    "This is a nightmare," she recalled thinking, "and it can't be happening."

    People caught in luggage rack

    Amtrak's Northeast Corridor is 363 miles of track connecting Washington to Boston. It is the busiest railroad in North America, as three times more people take the train between Washington and New York City than fly the route.
    Train 188 was on its way from Washington to New York, carrying 238 commuters and five crew members at the end of another workday.
    The trip was routine until the train passed through the Port Richmond neighborhood in Philadelphia.
    That's when Wetrin saw passengers catapulted from their seats.
    "There were two people above our head in the luggage rack asking to be helped down," he told CNN. "It was just unbelievable."
    A video posted on Instagram showed people trying to help passengers out.

    My train crashed

    A video posted by Yameen Allworld "Holladay" (@yameenallworld) on

    "Keep crawling, OK?" one man tells a passenger.
    "Where am I crawling to?" the passenger asks.
    "Crawl forward, sir," another man says.

    Power cables add extra danger

    Many passengers walked away, some with bloodied shirts or head wounds wrapped in bandages.
    But the journey from the crash site was also treacherous.
    "All the power cables that run parallel to the track caved in," Wetrin said. "There were cut cables hanging around."
    Many passengers, including former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida, praised the firefighters and police, who arrived within minutes.
    "Thank you so much to all the first responders-there w/in minutes," Murphy tweeted. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
    Not all the rescuers wore uniforms.
    "My son went back and got everybody off our one car," Helfman, the nurse, said. "There was a very small opening in the door, and we were able to get out."
    Her son, Max, told KYW that his first priority was getting his mother off the train. Then he went to help the strangers.
    "Luckily I'm still here, I'm still walking," Max Helfman said. "So I figured I would do my best to help because I saw everyone -- I could see the blood on people's faces. They can't move. ... So I just tried to do my best to help people get out of that car."
    Andrew Brenner told CNN on Wednesday night that he's become angry as his knowledge of the crash grows.
    "The news that I heard today about the speed and the lack of safety controls that could have been enforced at that section of the railway is nothing short of infuriating," he said. "The fact that this was preventable ... is just enraging."