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Amtrak wreck survivor: A ‘big bang,’ then unconsciousness

MICHAEL R. SISAK
The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — A passenger who survived a deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia more than two years ago testified Tuesday that she could feel the train speed up as it approached a curve, then heard a “big bang” as her car hurtled off the tracks and she wound up unconscious in the woods.

FILE - In this May 13, 2015, file photo, emergency personnel work at the scene of a derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train headed to New York. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, for Brandon Bostian charged in a Philadelphia derailment that killed eight in 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Blair Berman, who rode in the severely damaged first car of the train, testified at a preliminary hearing for the Amtrak engineer who’s facing criminal charges in the derailment that killed eight people and injured about 200.

As the train accelerated and began “going way too fast,” Berman said she removed an earbud and looked into the aisle to see what was happening.

“I heard screaming from the front of the car and then a big bang and then I blacked out and woke up in the woods,” she said, adding that other passengers were lying on top of her.

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Brandon Bostian, 34, the engineer aboard the Washington-to-New York train, faces charges that include involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment in a case that was pursued only after a victim’s family intervened and a judge overruled city prosecutors who had said there wasn’t enough evidence against him.

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Bostian’s lawyers are trying to get the case dismissed, arguing in court documents that the unusual circumstances leading to Bostian’s arrest, as the statute of limitations loomed, had violated his due process rights. A judge will decide after Tuesday’s hearing whether to order Bostian to stand trial.

Federal safety investigators have said Bostian accelerated to 106 mph in a 50 mph curve, concluding that he lost his bearings while distracted by an incident with a nearby train.

Berman, who suffered several broken bones, testified that she encountered Bostian when she regained consciousness — barefoot and unable to put weight on her leg — and began screaming for help.

Blair Berman, a passenger who survived a deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia more than two years ago, walks from the Criminal Justice Center after she testified at a preliminary hearing for Brandon Bostian, the Amtrak engineer who's facing criminal charges in the derailment, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

She said Bostian initially refused to let her use his phone, then relented, and she called her father.

Berman, who was living in New York at the time of the crash and was heading home after a Mother’s Day weekend in the Philadelphia area, said Bostian appeared alert and aware. She said he was able to tell her where along the route the train had crashed.

But Philadelphia Police Det. Joseph Knoll, testifying later Tuesday, said that Bostian didn’t seem to know where he was when he arrived at a hospital a few miles from the crash scene.

“Are we in New York?” Bostian asked nurses and others as he walked into the hospital, according to Knoll.

Knoll said he could tell Bostian was injured in the crash because he had a visible head wound, but didn’t know the engineer had suffered a concussion.

A judge ordered the charges against Bostian based on a private criminal complaint that lawyers for victim Rachel Jacobs’ family filed after the Philadelphia district attorney’s office declined to pursue the case.

Bostian’s legal team argued the judge’s decision to approve the charges “unilaterally infringed” on the district attorney’s prosecutorial discretion. His lawyers include Brian McMonagle, who recently left Bill Cosby’s defense team after reaching a deadlock in his June sex assault trial.

The district attorney’s office concluded it had “no evidence” he acted with criminal intent and insufficient evidence to prove he acted with intent or “conscious disregard” for the passengers’ safety.

Brandon Bostian, the Amtrak engineer charged in a Philadelphia derailment that killed eight in 2015, arrives for a preliminary hearing at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

State prosecutors are now handling the criminal case.

The National Transportation Safety Board found no evidence that Bostian was impaired or using a cellphone. The agency also called Amtrak’s long failure to implement automatic speed control throughout the busy Northeast Corridor a contributing factor.

It has since installed speed controls on all the tracks it owns on the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington.

Tuesday’s testimony revealed that Bostian had a second electronic device with him the night of the crash — a tablet computer.

Eric McClendon, with the police department’s bomb disposal unit, said he found a small tablet inside Bostian’s backpack in the locomotive. But the device later went missing and was never examined by federal investigators for possible use while Bostian was operating the train.