By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
NEW YORK — Investigators trying to determine why an Amtrak train barreled into a curve at more than twice the speed limit are studying the engineer’s cellphone to see if he was distracted before the fatal crash, officials said Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the Federal Railroad Administration had obtained the cellphone records of Brandon Bostian, who was at the train’s controls May 12 when it derailed in Philadelphia. Eight passengers on the train, Amtrak’s No. 188 out of Washington and headed for New York, were killed.
“Although the records appear to indicate that calls were made, text messages sent, and data used on the day of the accident, investigators have not yet made a determination if there was any phone activity during the time the train was being operated,” the NTSB said in its latest update on the investigation.
Robert Goggin, Bostian’s attorney, has said his client’s phone was turned off and packed in his bag, as Amtrak rules require, as the train headed north. The seven passenger cars and the locomotive sped up to 106 mph before the crash, which occurred on a curve with a 50-mph speed limit.
The NTSB said it will take time to determine if Bostian’s cellphone was indeed turned off from the time the train left Washington shortly after 7 p.m. until the moment it crashed at 9:21 p.m. Time stamps in the cellphone records must be correlated with various data sources, including the train’s so-called black box recorder, its radio communications and the locomotive’s outward facing video camera.
“Each one must be correlated to the same time zone so that a factual timeline of events can be developed that will allow investigators to understand if any phone activity has any relevance to the accident,” the NTSB said.
In addition to studying the cellphone, the NTSB said it continues to try to determine whether an object hit the train before the derailment.
A conductor on the train told investigators that she believed she had heard Bostian saying something to another train’s engineer about being hit by a projectile as he passed through Philadelphia.
A review of Bostian’s audio records from the trip, however, turned up no such conversation. Bostian did not mention anything about such a conversation when he met with investigators last Friday, officials said. The NTSB noted, however, that Bostian, who suffered head and other injuries in the crash, says he has no recollection of the incident.
The engineer of a local commuter train that had stopped after being hit by an object in the same area told investigators that he heard Bostian announce on his radio “hot track rail two,” to let him know the Amtrak train was about to pass the stopped commuter train. The commuter train’s engineer did not notice anything unusual as the Amtrak train went by, the NTSB said.
The windshield of the Amtrak locomotive appeared to have been hit by something, officials said, but the FBI studied the damage and ruled out a firearm as the cause.
Bostian, 32, has not spoken publicly. He has been an Amtrak engineer since December 2010, and had operated trains on the Washington-Boston route for about three years. According to the NTSB, he had been specifically assigned the Washington-New York City route for several weeks.
The crash halted rail service along Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor until last Monday morning.
Photo: (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)