Judge: Amtrak engineer's deadly crash an accident, not crime

Posted at 10:48 PM, Sep 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-12 22:48:18-04

An unusual, 11th-hour attempt to put an Amtrak engineer behind bars for a deadly 2015 derailment in Philadelphia unraveled Tuesday as a judge dismissed the case without trial because he found the evidence pointed to an accident, not negligence.

Judge Thomas Gehret's rationale echoed the thinking of city prosecutors, whose decision in May not to charge engineer Brandon Bostian led a victim's family to seek charges on its own as a statute of limitations loomed.

Bostian, 34, hugged his lawyer as Gehret made his ruling at the end of a four-hour preliminary hearing that saw seven witnesses reliving aspects of the May 12, 2015 crash, including gruesome details of tattered cars and limbs strewn along the tracks.

He'd faced charges including involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

Bostian's Washington-to-New York train rounded a sharp curve at more than twice the 50 mph speed limit and hurdled off the tracks in a violent derailment that crumpled cars and catapulted passengers into the woods.

Eight people died and about 200 people were hurt.

 Bostian's lawyer, Brian McMonagle, said his speeding was a momentary lapse from a safety-conscious engineer who had lost his bearings after being distracted by an incident with a nearby train.

"Obviously this is a terrible, terrible tragedy, but today there was justice," McMonagle said after the hearing. "Brandon Bostian is a good man. His heart breaks for the loss of life in this case and the tragedy that occurred. But he's innocent of any criminal charges."

Bostian didn't comment.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation completed last year found no evidence that Bostian was impaired or using a cellphone.

A police officer testified that Bostian also had a tablet computer in his backpack, but the device went missing and was never examined for possible use while he was operating the train. An FBI agent testified there was no reason to suspect Bostian had taken the item from the crash scene.

Bostian was handcuffed in May outside a Philadelphia police station while turning himself in after the family of a woman killed in the crash, Rachel Jacobs, filed a private criminal complaint and another judge ordered that the case go forward.

Through their lawyer, Jacobs' family urged prosecutors to refile the charges.

"The sad tragedy here is that there's been no accountability despite the enormity of the loss," the lawyer, Thomas Kline, said. "There's absolutely no individual accountability, and that's where the victims believe there's a lack of juncture between the law and reality."

Bostian has been on unpaid administrative leave from Amtrak since the crash and is suing the government-owned railroad, alleging he was left disoriented or unconscious when something struck his train before it derailed. NTSB investigators have said nothing struck the locomotive.

Amtrak has taken responsibility for the crash and agreed to pay $265 million to settle claims filed by victims and their families. It has also installed speed controls on all of its track from Boston to Washington.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office picked up the criminal case after the district attorney's office bowed out and Jacobs' family interceded, said he's "carefully reviewing" Gehret's decision.

At Tuesday's hearing, a passenger who survived the crash testified that she could feel the train speed up as it approached a curve, and then heard a "big bang" as her car hurtled off the tracks and she wound up unconscious in the woods.

As the train accelerated and began "going way too fast," Blair Berman said she removed an earbud and looked into the aisle to see what was happening.

"I heard screaming from the front of the car and then a big bang and then I blacked out and woke up in the woods," she said, adding that other passengers were lying on top of her.