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In many ways Michael Nutter became the face of the Amtrak 188 crash.
The train derailed a year ago tonight at Frankford Junction, late in his second term as mayor. Hours after the crash, Nutter raced to the scene, appearing that night for the first of many press conferences over the next week. He, like the rest of the city, the nation and the world, soon learned of the tragic death toll.
In a conversation with Billy Penn, Nutter recalled the night of the crash, why he railed against Amtrak 188 engineer Brandon Bostian on CNN, and what parts of the tragedy will always stay with him.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Walk me back to that night. How did you learn of the crash? What was your first thought? Did you realize the scope of what you were seeing when you saw it? Who was your main point of contact that night and what do you remember about how those people responded?
I was in Center City, in a dinner meeting, and I got a call saying there had been a train derailment but there were no other details, no other information at that moment.
A little while later I got another call saying it was, in fact, a passenger train and that it looked very bad. I talked to my chief of staff and we immediately knew we needed to get out to the location.
We had a protocol in place for emergency situations. It was not tremendously clear at the moment exactly where the train had derailed, what the access points were. But we knew the general area. A bunch of us — my chief of staff, city representative Desiree Peterkin Bell, a variety of police personnel… Commissioner Ramsey was already on-site by the time I got there as well as high-ranking fire personnel. We could see from the roadway as we were approaching a significant amount of police lights. But we still at the moment did not have any particular details on what happened. We didn’t know whether it was a derailment, we didn’t know whether it was an act of terrorism.
When I got to the main location it was chaotic, it was dark. There were people running around all over the place, there was a lot of press, a lot of first responder personnel. They had no idea what they were walking into at all. The train had derailed, and there were people on it, and they just went in. That’s the heroism of those folks. They show up to do their duty. They went in not knowing. “Is this a bomb, might the train catch on fire, explode?”
Then I saw people walking who we figured out were passengers, walking out right past the fire department and police, who had set up the EMS vehicles to transport folks to the hospital.I found the highest-ranking police officer I could find. In that situation, with the streets filled with people, with the press all over the place… you have to create a secure zone and set boundaries of who can be in the area.
There was a lot of chaos, a lot of confusion. We saw neighbors coming out bringing towels and water, all kinds of things to comfort people coming off the train. They were dazed and confused. Eventually a group of us went over to the actual area where the train had derailed and did a walking tour.
We had no idea at that time how many people were on Train 188. There was no manifest at that moment.
In that situation, the first responsibility is to try to throw out as much comfort and support to the people involved, to give accurate information – limited to what we knew at the moment. But you can’t speculate. So there was a lot of … “We think this was what may have happened…” It was obvious that something terrible had happened. The police had dogs out. We got more dogs on the scene. It was pretty clear there were no bombs, that it was probably not terrorism. But we still don’t know exactly what happened.
In another week or so, I was told, the NTSB will be releasing its final report. But there are still a lot of unknowns.
There was a tremendous response from Governor Tom Wolf, who I talked to, who came from his home and drove down to Philadelphia. Amtrak police were great on the scene. And of course the Philadelphia police and the fire department, the paramedics did a spectacular job… And whenever we have any kind of tragedy or terrible circumstance, we’ve gotten tremendous support from American Red Cross. They provide a level of comfort and security in this huge team effort.
A tremendous amount of press had already assembled fairly early on. We had our first press conference or update somewhere maybe around midnight when we thought we had some decent information to share.
It was the most horrifying scene that I have ever personally witnessed. Well, one of them. I have witnessed more than a few… It was just a complete and total mess. That scene that night was just horrific.
The next day you could get a much better sense of the sheer horror that took place. I kept thinking over and over in my head that night and for many many days since then what it could have possibly been like to be on that train. It’s starting to come off the tracks. The turning and the twisting of the cars, many were upside down or on their sides. What could it have possibly been like for those passengers?
Then we started to know some had perished. How do we get in touch with families, provide comfort? That’s the duty and responsibility of the mayor. That’s my job. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
Are you surprised there weren’t any criminal charges? You had pretty strong words for engineer Brandon Bostian. (Ed. note: On CNN, Nutter said of the engineer of the train that ‘you’d almost have to be an idiot’ to speed up through the curve at Frankford Junction.)
I think it is fairly standard in these situations that a full and complete NTSB investigation usually takes a year, whether it’s trains or airplanes that crash. All these significant scenes take a year. They’re very good at what they do but they’re very thorough. I’m very very interested just to understand what happened.
I’ll leave the law enforcement issues to the law enforcement community. I expressed my personal feelings as a citizen, as a father, as a human being. Obviously something went wrong, terribly wrong. I’ll leave it to investigators. I expressed a human feeling.
When was the next time you got on a train?
Service was restored the following Monday. I met passengers on the first train the following Monday at 30th Street Station. I think I was on a train within about a week to go to New York for something, because I very clearly remember sitting on the right side of the train purposely — so that I could see the spot and remember it. Now, most of the time I travel to New York, I do that. I can’t forget it. I look for it all the time. The area looks very different now, but I know exactly where it is, I know exactly where to look for it. In the last year I’ve probably traveled on Amtrak 100 times… Well, maybe not that much. But I’ve had a lot of travel lately. And I’ll be on a train tomorrow. When I was teaching at Columbia, I was on at least one time a week. If you’re asking am I nervous about being on a train, the answer is no. Amtrak is historically a very safe way to travel, reliable, very good service. I’ve never had a concern to be on Amtrak.
I talked to I believe six of the eight families at that time. There were a couple folks I wasn’t able to make contact with. Out of this particular tragedy and other things that have happened… this is one of the reasons why I wanted to serve on the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Whether it’s day-to-day street crime or terrorism or safety and security of people in transportation, that’s why I do some of the things I do. Public safety is enormously important.
A significant tragedy occurred in our city. We witnessed heroism by our first responders.
This is a significant moment in the city’s history. It has to be recognized appropriately. We owe it to those families to keep them in our thoughts and prayers. I do. It’s stayed with me. You can’t go through that kind of experience and not have it not affect you. This is a personal tragedy that stays with me, but also guides me in the work that I do. Philadelphia, as a city, did its best to help people in their time of need.
Was there one moment that stuck with you of the crash and its aftermath?
Yeah, a couple.
The press conference with Governor Wolf, the next day when we really could see the totality of what had happened.
I was walking down the street a couple of days later and a lady came up to me with a couple cups of water and threw a bear hug around me. It was a tremendously emotional moment for both of us.
The times when we would come to brief the press. That was probably the largest amount of press assembled in once place at one time during my time. As we would walk up the street and take in that scene… I had no idea how many cameras were out there. But this was clearly a national and international issue.
Certainly seeing the wreckage is a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
And just, us doing our best. We were almost like KYW, there were almost 2, 3, 4 press conferences a day to keep people up to date on what was going on. That was the responsibility of city government. To let them know, and certainly the families: We have not forgotten you.