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Probable cause? The radio chatter the NTSB says distracted Amtrak 188’s engineer

What were those radio communications that supposedly caused the engineer to lose track of where he was?

SEPTA engineer Curtis Parrish Jr. had never heard anything like it. As he passed Diamond Street in North Philadelphia just after 9 p.m. on May 12, 2015, he saw someone near the tracks wearing dark clothes with a light on and blew his horn. The next thing Parrish knew, he was overcome by a loud sound and then felt the sting of glass on his face. His windshield had been shattered. He stopped the train, on track 1, and radioed the dispatcher, Joseph Curran, to describe his situation.   

What followed next was six minutes of communication between Parrish, Curran… and one comment from Amtrak 188 engineer Brandon Bostian. A minute after the conversation between Parrish and the dispatcher ended, Amtrak 188 derailed. The six minute radio conversation is now in the spotlight: It’s the most prominent evidence the National Transportation Safety Board used to craft its conclusion of how Bostian was largely to blame for the accident that killed eight and injured more than 200.

In its final report, voted on yesterday, the NTSB concluded Bostian was the probable cause for the accident and had “lost situational awareness.” This occurred, the NTSB says, after Bostian overheard radio communications between the SEPTA conductor and the dispatcher, apparently distracting him so badly that he forgot to slow the train heading into the curve at Frankford Junction. There, it ultimately crashed, four minutes after his comment over the radio and several miles after he passed the stalled SEPTA train.

But that was only determined to be the probable cause, as the NTSB had largely ruled out any other explanation. Bostian was a well-respected engineer who, coworkers say, was dedicated to his job. He wasn’t using a cell phone at the time of the crash, and his extensive medical and toxicology tests all came back negative. It’s rare, but in previous cases the NTSB has chosen not to determine a probable cause for an accident, when there’s not sufficient evidence. 

Attorneys representing victims of the crash and their families say they don’t buy the “lost situational awareness” explanation and accused the NTSB of operating based on “rank speculation.”

“It is implausible to say that he just suddenly forgot where he was because minutes earlier he had heard of an incident,” attorney Tom Kline said Tuesday.

The SEPTA incident

Parrish commented over the radio at 9:13 p.m. his windshield had been shattered but wasn’t sure exactly what caused it (SEPTA’s investigation into the incident is still ongoing, and the agency declined to release details). The dispatcher asked whether he was OK. Parrish and Curran went on to discuss his exact location back and forth for a minute when at 9:16 p.m. Bostian radioed to say, “Hot rail, hot rail, Number 2 rail coming,” which Parrish testified is a common step for an engineer when they’re passing another train.    

In an interview with NTSB investigators, Bostian described the SEPTA train engineer as sounding “very upset,” and said he was concerned for Parrish’s safety because he had a coworker in Oakland that had glass impact his eye after a collision. However, Bostian said there’s been “so many times” that he’s heard reports of rocks and nothing has happened, that he “felt like it was unlikely that it would impact” his train. He also said he figured whoever had caused the damage had left the scene: “I wasn’t, you know, super concerned, I don’t think.”  

An NTSB spokesperson told Billy Penn Bostian’s ability to describe the conversation between the dispatcher and the SEPTA engineer in his interviews and his claim that he thought about his friend in California showed he was still paying attention to the radio after his lone comment.

“The NTSB suggests that his attention to the emerging event with the SEPTA train was at the expense of focusing on his own train operations, ultimately resulting in his loss of situational awareness,” a spokesperson said.

The NTSB investigators did not ask Bostian in either of his two interviews whether he thought it was common for rocks to be thrown at trains in this area of North Philadelphia or whether he had been “rocked” before. The investigators asked both Parrish and Curran whether they thought thrown rocks were common. Curran said there is “a lot.” Parrish said “kids are always out there throwing rocks.” Since 2012, there have been seven other reports of rocks being thrown at trains within five miles of the derailment site.

At no point did Parrish relay to the dispatcher that he was facing an emergency situation. During his interview with the NTSB, he said he told Joseph Curran no one was hurt and after Curran asked him again if he needed assistance he said, “OK, you can send assistance.” Parrish recalled Amtrak 188 passing his train and said nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Then, four minutes later, Amtrak 188 entered the curve at Frankford Junction, hit the turn at 106 mph and derailed.

The full transcript

Here is the full transcript of the six minutes of radio transmissions:

SEPTA train at 9:13 p.m. Something happened to the window. It looks like a rock. Train 769 Amtrak CTEC. Over.

Dispatcher at 9:13 p.m.  Track CETC 6 to 769

SEPTA train at 9:13 p.m. 769, coming out of Mantua, right at, uh, almost at the Diamond Street under grade bridge. Something hit our windshield. I don’t know if somebody threw something, or somebody – but our windshield is shattered. I saw somebody by the side of the rail, but they had a light on, they had on a light on dark clothes. I couldn’t see what they looked like. But the windshield from this train is shattered. Over.

Dispatcher at 9:14 p.m. Alright. Somebody either threw something or – alright. Um. Diamond Street under bridge, under bridge? bridge, uh, and you’re all right? Over.

SEPTA train at 9:14 p.m. So far everything – I mean – I just got glass in my face. I saw a trespasser by the freight tracks. I blew the horn, it had a light, they put the light out. And that’s when it happened. It’s about – I dumped the train about 6 cat poles from where it happened. Over.

Dispatcher at 9:14 p.m.  You said you got glass on your face. Over.

Dispatcher at 9:15 p.m. Alright. Roger. So you dumped the train? And you’re all intact and on the rail, correct? Over.

SEPTA train 9:15 p.m. We’re on the rail and, like I said, the windshield is shattered. Something hit it. I don’t know what it was. I’ve seen people throw rocks here before. I don’t know if it was a rock. But this windshield is shattered.

Dispatcher at 9:15 p.m.  Alright. Roger. And Um – Do you have like an exact milepost where that dump at Diamond Street Bridge is? Over

Dispatcher at 9:15 p.m. Where you stopped right now? 769 over.

SEPTA train 9:15 p.m. On the cat 4-pole where I’m stopped.

Amtrak Train 188 9:16 p.m. Amtrak 188 as SEPTA 769, Hot rail, hot rail, Number 2 rail coming. Over.

Dispatcher at 9:16 p.m. CETC 6, 769, what’s your exact location there?

SEPTA train 9:16 p.m. I’m over on top of 22nd and Diamond. Right over Diamond Street, around 22nd. Milepost 86. It’s milepost 86.

Dispatcher 9:16 p.m. All right, Milepost 86. All right. So the front windshield is completely shattered. Um, you’re all right? Correct? Over.

SEPTA train 9:16 p.m. Kind of dinged… because there’s glass all in my face.

Dispatcher at 9:17 p.m. Do you need any medical attention or anything? Over.

Dispatcher 9:17 p.m. All right, I understand that, 769. Do you need medical attention or anything? Over.

SEPTA train at 9:17 p.m. 769 answering. Over. Ah, yes, it’s a good idea. Please, please. I just want to make sure.

Dispatcher at 9:18 p.m. Alright, you do want medical attention. Okay, alright. Roger.

Undetermined 9:19 p.m. First person: [Indiscernible] Second person: [Laughs] Yeh, we got rocked.

Amtrak 188 derails 9:20 p.m.

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