First Responders Talk About Amtrak Derailment

When an Amtrak train derailed Tuesday night in Philadelphia, first responders jumped into action. But they soon found out that no matter how much training is done, an actual mass casualty incident presents unique challenges.

"I got the call when second alarm was sounding," said Craig Murphy, special operations deputy chief of Homeland Security for the Philadelphia Fire Department. "Normally folks are pretty calm. What I was hearing when I picked up the phone was controlled chaos."

Murphy and other first responders gathered at City Hall Friday morning to recount what they saw and felt after Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed in the Frankford Junction section of the city Tuesday night.  Eight people died and more than 200 were injured when the trail flew off the tracks while going more than 100 mph.

Instead of slowing down as the train approached the 50 mph curve, federal investigators said the train accelerated, entering that stretch of track at 106 mph before derailing.

Hundreds of emergency personnel responded to the incident.

"You do what is needed to save lives in order to break out of chaos," Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia Everett Gillison said. "All things start first with the dispatcher when the call comes in."

Gillison noted the coordination among the different branches of the police department, fire crews and office of emergency management in helping to pull passengers from the wreckage.

"My first instinct was to go along with other dispatchers to contact local hospitals and notify that a lot of people were coming," first dispatcher Khiara Green said. "We did the best we could to service the City of Philadelphia because there was a train derailment, but people had other emergencies (across the city)."

Initial problems for officials involved determining the site of the derailment, said Steven Imczennik, the assistant chief dispatcher at the Fire Communications Center. Many of the passengers who called 911 were unaware of where they were when the train derailed, but officials were able to determine their location using cell phone technology.

"I am extremely proud of the job our unit did in fire communications," Imczennik said. "I would also like to give credit to the firefighters, medics and police department on the scene."

When the first fire crews arrived at the scene they had issues getting direct access to the incident, Philadelphia Fire Department Lt. Joe Farrell of Ladder 15 said.

"There was zero lighting," he said. "When we first approached the scene it was on such a (large) scale what we ended up doing was splitting (up) and we tried to establish a triage."

 The city's special operations unit coordinated with other departments to determine what was happening and how to proceed.

"We had a disastrous scene and needed the right resources," Murphy said. "I asked the location and what technical rescue aspects on scene."

Canine officers such as Wyatt, who specializes in identifying human remains, were also present on the scene alongside emergency first responders helping locate passengers and victims who died in the derailment.

"The canine dogs were the stars of the show," Murphy added. "We’re all trained but not trained at the level they are."

Despite the horror passengers and emergency responders were forced to deal with following the crash, officials said the city came together in light of the tragedy.

"Nothing prepares for what you see that night," Inspector Michael McCarick said. "It was heroic and selfless acts committed by the police and fire department."

And while many first responders arrived in uniform prepared to assist civilians, there were just as many authorities and officials that came from their homes dressed as pedestrians.

"When I first got the call of the first supervisor on scene you could tell from the tone of the voice that this was big," said Capt. Daniel O’Conner of the 24th District. "It was impressive the way police, fire and EMS all worked together."

One particularly poignant moment captured at the scene by photographer Joe Kaczmarek showed three Philadelphia police officers carrying an injured passenger.

Mayor Michael Nutter on Friday commended all of the first responders that arrived at the scene to help passengers escape the wreckage.

"When I arrived out there it was a pretty chaotic scene," Nutter said. "What an incredible display of coordination, collaboration and just good training that we witnessed Tuesday night and all day Wednesday and Thursday."

The mayor noted the hard work and coordination among different agencies in the city in rescuing passengers and recognized the eight victims who lost their lives in the crash.

"We will continue to mourn the brave eight souls lost on Amtrak 188," Nutter said.

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