How Amtrak failed the victims of train 188: A survivor’s tale

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Politico Magazine on May 20, 2015. 

I’ve spent much of my career helping with disasters, helping people and organizations at some of the worst times of their lives. I was always lucky enough not to need the help of people like me. That ended last week, after I boarded Amtrak Train 188. I’m now even more grateful for our first responders—police, fire, EMTs and hospital emergency rooms. And more convinced that Amtrak itself needs an overhaul.

The trip started like every other from Union Station, with a long line of us waiting to have our tickets checked. However, it had a surprise ending: The train, running at 106 mph, more than twice the posted speed limit on that section, went off the rails just after stopping in Philadelphia.

I was seated in the third car, doing what any self-respecting workaholic does at 9:30 p.m.—sending email. The first sign that something was wrong was the screeching sound of the emergency brakes. In movies, the train then comes to a cinematic stop inches before the washed-out bridge. But this was a different script: The train, straining to follow a left curve at breakneck speed, rolled off the rails to the right and turned over.

In that split-second, I realized we could die. We slammed into the dirt with the car on its side. The force of the crash tore seats from their moorings and took out the windows. The air was a cloud of black dust. Almost 250 of us were in the dark, in shock and disoriented.

I’ve worked with disasters for a long time, but I have more experience being the help than the helped. In 2001, I was founding CEO of The September 11th Fund, a $500 million-plus charity dedicated to helping the people and communities affected by the deadly attacks.  After that, I ran Hawaiian Airlines and successfully brought it out of bankruptcy. Then President Barack Obama appointed me to run the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which helps people when their companies are bankrupt and their pensions disappear. I’d also worked on disaster relief efforts as a budget official during the Clinton administration.

Over the course of those experiences, I thought I’d learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in traumatic situations. When Train 188 derailed I tried to apply what I’d learned: to be calm and positive, to listen and to respond compassionately. I thought I was as well-prepared as anyone for an emergency. I have to admit, though, that actually being on Amtrak 188 changed my views. Somehow, the dispassionate professional assessment of what could have been done or should have been done seems inadequate when it was my ribs that were broken, my eyes damaged, and my life that was almost crushed out.

I have no professional view about what caused the derailment or who’s responsible for it—Whether the engineer or Amtrak was or was not negligent is a question for lawyers, courts, the National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI.

My focus is: “What happened after the derailment? Who was prepared and who was not? Who stepped in and who did not?

Disasters don’t follow a schedule, so you can’t plan them. But you can plan a response to them. That’s why the emphasis in organizations is always in training and planning. From my experience with Hawaiian and other airlines, I can tell you that airline staffs both train for disasters and practice responding to them. They understand that what happens in the hours immediately afterward can change people’s lives. Sometimes the response can be the difference between life and death; sometimes it just helps limit the pain and trauma.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson Amtrak evidently never bothered to learn. The railroad’s efforts at almost every stage were weak, uncoordinated and late.

Amtrak’s failure is all the more remarkable because, in a night filled with tragedy, the rest of the emergency response worked; and worked well.

Let’s start with my fellow passengers. Amtrak 188 was full of good Samaritans. After the crash, everyone was in shock and disoriented. One woman had her arm gashed and was bleeding. Another’s arm was broken. I’d been sitting on what had been the left-hand side of the car; now the left side was on the ground, and what had been the right-hand side was on top of us. Seats, luggage and people all came crashing forward and down. In my lap was a hysterical young woman. Her suitcase was on my right hip, and what had been her seat was now a canopy over us. In addition to having a banged-up head and bruised ribs, I’d lost my glasses and phone, so I was functionally almost blind.

We were the lucky ones. Just behind me, a woman had been crushed.

Nonetheless, people pulled together instead of apart. We didn’t panic, and we didn’t step on each other rushing for the exit—we helped each other.

Getting out of the car was not simple. “Walk to the nearest exit” doesn’t work when you can’t see the exit and the aisle is gone. Our emergency exit was a window pane, but, with the train on its side, the exit window was now directly above us. A resourceful man climbed a tower of seats and opened it. We started helping people repeat his trick, climbing up the stack of seats through the hole out into the night. It was hard work, especially for those whose arms couldn’t carry their weight. The one-armed ladies got through the exit window with two of us pushing from below and one or two others hauling them up with their good arm. Despite my injuries and my lack of glasses, phone or flashlight, I pitched in as best I could. Not having glasses ended up not mattering much: In the land of the one-armed, even the blind man can be king.

Some stayed to search for their luggage. Those searches were cut short when we saw the fire: Electricity had ignited something, and our car was beginning to fill up with smoke. That’s the second time I realized we could die. I yelled, “Stop looking for your luggage and get out before we’re all asphyxiated!”

Good samaritanism didn’t stop when we left the train. In the staging area and in hospitals, passengers continued to help each other find friends and contact their families. Despite bruises on her legs, arms and head, for example, a young violinist provided email and telephone services to those who needed them. Mercifully, she enabled me to tell my wife that I was safe even before she’d learned of the derailment. (Sadly, this young woman was later attacked by twits who knew nothing of her injuries or her actions. They thought trying to reclaim the violin that represents her livelihood was “insensitive.”)

Passengers who could have just taken their suitcases and run instead set them down and helped others. People with very different backgrounds offered their cellphones, help standing up or sitting down and sometimes just a hug. I felt good about humanity that night.

Just as important, the first responders were first-class. The Philadelphia police arrived in force within minutes. For those of us stranded on top of cars, they found a ladder, helped us get down and walked us across the tracks to a safe place. Once we were there, they and the EMT and fire department responders triaged us: Life-threatening injuries (“red tags”) went out by ambulance immediately; less urgent emergencies (“yellow tags”) were then taken in trucks. Since I had walked away from the train, I was a “green tag.” Fortunately for me, even “green tags” were checked.

Although the first responders of Philadelphia probably hadn’t practiced for an event of this magnitude, they worked cooperatively and without a lot of turf wars. They also seemed to have learned one of the most important lessons of 9/11: Make sure that the various radios can talk with each other.

The hospitals were overwhelmed, but the folks at Jefferson Hospital, where I was treated, clearly had procedures and practice following them. I was given antibiotics for my scratched eyes, and a tetanus shot. I was also examined for a possible concussion and possible broken ribs.

Although I had pain in my ribs, an X-ray showed no breaks, so they gave me Advil and discharged me about 3 a.m. Two days later, however, I was still in severe pain. Jefferson put me right through to the same ER doctor who’d taken care of me. She listened, checked the record and told me to get back to a hospital: “X-rays can miss broken ribs,” she said. It was impressive. (Have you ever heard of an ER doctor taking phone calls?) I took her advice, and a doctor at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery found that the crash had in fact broken my ribs.

There were over 240 passengers and five crew members on Amtrak No. 188. I think we’re all grateful to the Philadelphia Police Department, to the EMTs and the other first responders, and to the hospital emergency teams. They were excellent professionals and, just as important, caring people. In some cases, I’m sure they saved lives; in mine, they kept my injuries from becoming much worse.

What about Amtrak? I wish I could say the same about Amtrak, but in my view our national train company failed almost every single test. Amtrak, it appears, was derailed long before Train 188. Here’s where Amtrak most screwed up:

“Be (un)prepared.” Unlike the airlines, Amtrak appeared totally unprepared for the disaster. Amtrak appeared to have no plans or procedures for responding to the emergency, much less training of its employees and practice implementing them.

I didn’t meet anyone from Amtrak until I was discharged from the hospital almost six hours after the crash. That person, from Amtrak “Customer Service,” would answer no questions. She said her job was only to get us to 30th Street Station.

At 30th Street Station, there were many people from the American Red Cross and just two from Amtrak. Each organization asked us to fill out a different form providing contact information and describing our injuries. The Amtrak person I spoke with said they’d just developed the form that night. Unfortunately, the Amtrak form didn’t even ask what we needed or what we’d lost on the train. When we pointed out that most of us had lost luggage, she suggested we list it at the bottom.

The Amtrak person was cheerful, but she could answer no questions about what the timing and next steps would be; instead, she just gave us the card of another person in Amtrak “Customer Service.” It took me multiple attempts and several days to get through to that person; when I did, she suggested I call back—and ask for a different department. Four days after the accident, after I’d bought a replacement cellphone, Amtrak Customer Service contacted me on that number. That person, too, refused to answer any questions; her job was to ask for my mailing address—for the fourth time—so they could send me a claim form.

Six days after the accident, I still had no information from Amtrak about whether they’ll reimburse my medical expenses or what they’ll do about my lost luggage and medications—just a statement that, sometime this coming week, I’ll receive another form.

TLC vs. CYA. Whatever instinct the victims, the first responders and the doctors in Philadelphia had to band together and to care for those injured, Amtrak lacked. The railroad’s guiding principles seemed to be “Put nothing in writing” and CYA (cover your, er, “anatomy”).

Amtrak’s CEO published a letter claiming the railroad “took full responsibility” for the tragedy and implying that Amtrak was doing everything it possibly could to help its passengers. Such a public relations tactic might have been plausible were there any evidence that Amtrak’s management actually took responsibility. Instead, at each level, Amtrak employees seemed to say, “I’m doing my job. You’re someone else’s responsibility.”

Amtrak might be seen as being “fully responsible” had Amtrak’s CEO ever actually come to the derailment site or the hospitals or had the railroad reached out to its passengers and committed to make things right. When PBGC inadvertently shortchanged pensioners by sloppy calculation procedures, I personally committed to redo the work and correct any errors. When we found some errors, I signed the letter of apology (and we paid the difference with interest). By comparison, six days after the accident, I have received not a single written communication of any kind from anyone at Amtrak, not even an email.

The Amtrak CEO letter and Amtrak’s public relations advisers trumpeted to the public that Amtrak had set up a family assistance center in Philadelphia (which we did in New York after 9/11). However, they neglected to tell us passengers about it. (Perhaps they didn’t want us to point out that many of us don’t live in Philadelphia.)

Amtrak’s defenders want to blame Congress, saying this could have been prevented if a computerized automatic braking system had been installed. Congress certainly reinforced that argument by voting that same week to cut Amtrak’s budget. There are few organizations anywhere that could not do with more resources. Nonetheless, the failures we experienced didn’t seem to come from a lack of money, but rather a lack of compassion from Amtrak staff and a lack of attention or competence from Amtrak management.

Some will again argue that Amtrak shouldn’t be operated by government, that it should be privatized. Such arguments seem to confuse ideology with quality of service. Many of the highest-quality passenger rail operations in the world are operated by governments. Within the U.S. government, when I joined the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., it already did a great job: PBGC had the highest customer satisfaction scores of any federal benefits agency—higher even than the Social Security Administration. Nonetheless, over four years we improved them substantially.

I’ve been privileged to work with many organizations that provide excellent service—whether it be the way Hawaiian Airlines shows passengers the Aloha Spirit or the way that the PBGC makes sure no one ever misses a pension check. They do it with compassion and dedication, by going the extra mile, and by putting their customers first.

Going forward, it’s pretty clear that Amtrak needs a real overhaul. However, the way to accomplish that is not to cut the budget while leaving management and board exactly as they are, but to do the reverse.

Amtrak 188 was a tragedy, but it does not have to be a prologue. Amtrak can provide excellent, safe service—the way to do so is to make changes instead of excuses.