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Nearly seven years after the fatal derailment of an Amtrak train as it rounded a curve in Northeast Philadelphia, the engineer involved has been found not guilty by a jury in Common Pleas Court.
Eight people who’d been heading to New York City died in the wreck, and over 200 were injured. It was the worst crash on the Northeast Corridor since 1987, when 16 people died in a collision between an Amtrak train and two Conrail engines in Baltimore.
Whether the engineer, Brandon Bostian, should face criminal consequences for his role was a question tossed about the legal system for years, with a string of prosecutors and judges contradicting one another.
After fewer than 90 minutes of deliberation on Friday, the jury decided Bostian’s innocence on counts of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and causing a catastrophe.
At the start of the trial last week, Bostian rejected a deal that would’ve allowed him to plead “no contest” to nine counts of reckless endangerment in exchange for all other charges being dropped. Instead, he decided to move forward with the trial, which held the chance of “more than a lifetime of incarceration,” Judge Barbara McDermott told him. Later, he chose not to take the stand in his own defense.
What do we know about the 2015 tragedy, and what’s unfolded in the years since? Here’s a recap of what happened before, during, and after the derailment, all leading up to the jury’s decision.
What happened on that fatal Tuesday
Amtrak 188 was carrying 250 passengers and eight employees as it passed through North Philadelphia Station and headed toward Frankford Junction on May 12, 2015. In that stretch, the train goes along a straightaway with a speed limit of 70 miles per hour, followed by a curve with a speed limit of 50 miles per hour.
But instead of slowing down, on that day the train sped up, accelerating to upward of 90 miles per hour on the straightaway and screaming along at 106 miles per hour as it entered the curve.
Bostian eventually hit the emergency brake, but not soon enough to stop the train from running off the tracks. The first car crumpled like an accordion, and several others overturned. 200 police personnel went to the scene. Eight people died — Justin Zemser, Jim Gaines, Rachel Jacobs, Abid Gilani, Derrick Griffith, Bob Gildersleeve, Giuseppe Piras, and Laura Finamore. Another couple of hundred people were injured, some very seriously.
Some details are still unclear
The National Transportation Safety Board spent a year investigating the crash.
During the process, engineer Bostian was interviewed several times. He and his lawyers said a head injury he sustained from the crash prevented him from clearly remembering most of what happened. Six months after the crash, he shared a different account than his original story..
The NTSB concluded Bostian likely lost his “situational awareness” when his radio started buzzing with around two dozen messages about a nearby SEPTA train that was being hit by thrown rocks.
Federal investigators found no mechanical issues with the train, and noted that Bostian wasn’t drowsy, using substances, or on his cell phone.
The victims’ lawyers have questioned the NTSB report, dismissing the conclusion that Bostian had lost his bearings as “truly speculation.”
Why weren’t safety measures already in place?
Following the derailment, Amtrak reckoned with some safety-related measures on its trains.
The crash almost immediately sparked discussion over something called “positive train control,” a safety system that forces trains to stay below the speed limit, which some experts said could have prevented the derailment altogether.
The system had already been installed on the tracks, but officials said technical problems, budget issues, and bureaucracy prevented it from being operational. PTC eventually went live on Amtrak routes between Washington, D.C. and New York by December 2015, and by August 2020, it was implemented on all Amtrak-owned and -operated tracks throughout the country.
Amtrak also began to add in-cab cameras facing train engineers on some routes in the weeks following the crash.
The fallout also had financial consequences for the rail service. Around 120 claims were filed against the service within the year following the crash, and Amtrak later agreed to pay $265 million (the legal limit) in settlements related to the crash.
Bostian’s yearslong legal saga
The issue of whether to hold Bostian criminally responsible has been batted back and forth between courts and potential prosecutors over the years, ultimately landing in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court this week.
Here’s an overview of the timeline:
- May 2017: Then-Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams decides not to not bring charges against Bostian, saying there’s not enough evidence to do so. But a lawyer for the husband of one of the passengers who died files a private criminal complaint against the engineer, and President Judge Marsha Neifield of the Philadelphia Municipal Court orders criminal charges. The DA’s office recuses itself, instead handing prosecution in the case over to the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
- September 2017: Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Thomas F. Gehret dismisses the case, saying it was likely an accident rather than criminal.
- October 2017: Shapiro files an appeal of the dismissal with the Common Pleas Court.
- February 2018: Common Pleas Court Judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis agrees with the AG’s appeal and reinstates the charges against Bostian.
- July 2019: Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott dismisses the charges against Bostian, who was scheduled to go on trial in September 2019.
- May 2020: Superior Court Judge Victor Stabile overturns the lower court’s decision after another appeal from the AG’s office, stating that fact-finding is still needed. That reinstates the charges once again.
- February-March 2022: Bostian goes on trial in the Court of Common Pleas after rejecting a plea deal, again in front of Judge McDermott. After a week-long trial and about an hour and a half of deliberation, the jury finds him not guilty on all counts.