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Train sped up before crash, authorities say

Investigator Robert Sumwalt told reporters in Philadelphia Thursday that the agency hopes to talk to Amtrak engineer Brandon Bostian within the next few days. mel evans/associated press

PHILADELPHIA — As the death toll from a fatal Amtrak derailment rose to eight, federal investigators on Thursday turned their attention to the train’s engineer and said the train was accelerating as it approached a sharp bend before careening off the tracks.

Robert L. Sumwalt, the National Transportation Safety Board official supervising the inquiry, said the engineer, Brandon Bostian, 32, who lives in Queens and joined Amtrak as a conductor about a decade ago, had agreed to be interviewed. Sumwalt said investigators will talk to him in the next few days.

The safety board said, via Twitter, that the engineer could be heard applying the emergency brake just before the train entered the curve at 106 miles per hour, but crucial questions about his actions, and whether he was to blame for the excessive speed, remain unanswered. The board has also been studying the data from the train’s “black box” recorder for clues to what happened.

Bostian “has absolutely no recollection of the incident or anything unusual,” Robert Goggin, who was identified as the engineer’s lawyer, said on ABC News. “The next thing he recalls is being thrown around, coming to, finding his cellphone and dialing 911.”

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All of the victims of the crash have been identified, and the person found dead Thursday morning was the last to be accounted for, said Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter. Officials said during a news conference that the eighth body was found by a cadaver-sniffing dog in the passenger coach that was farthest forward in the train, just behind the locomotive. That car had the most damage.

Amtrak has said there were 238 passengers and five crew members aboard the train.

The crash occurred on a stretch of the Washington-to-Boston route where a signal system known as positive train control, which can prevent a train from going too fast, was not yet in operation. Experts say the system probably would have averted the wreck.

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The system is already operating on parts of Amtrak’s network, but in that location, there has been trouble with interference with the radio signals that enable devices along the route to communicate with equipment on the train, said Joseph H. Boardman, the railroad’s chief executive.

Boardman said his railroad was the national leader in adopting positive train control and would have it operating on the entire Northeast Corridor by the end of the year.

A 2008 federal law requires passenger lines and heavily used freight lines to have the system by the end of this year. Freight companies have lobbied for an extension.

Even without positive train control, Amtrak locomotives should alert operators of excessive speed with warning lights and loud alarms. Sumwalt said he did not know whether those systems were working.

Goggin said his client suffered a head wound that required 14 stitches and a leg wound that was stapled. He said the engineer turned his cellphone over to the police; investigators in train crashes routinely look into whether engineers are distracted by calling or texting.

Nutter said Bostian gave a blood sample; Goggin said he had not taken drugs or alcohol.

Bostian’s social media profiles describe him as being from Memphis and a University of Missouri graduate who joined Amtrak as a conductor in 2006 and became an engineer in 2010. His neighbors in Queens said he was quiet and polite.

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Nutter said the Philadelphia police spoke with the engineer, but “I believe it was a pretty short interview, in which he apparently indicated that he did not want to be interviewed.”

Sumwalt said, “We certainly want to be able to interview him as soon as he’s available and ready — I mean mentally and physically,” Sumwalt said. “You can imagine if you’d been injured pretty badly in an accident, you may not have all of your faculties available. We want to make sure when we do talk to him, that’s he’s able to give us an accurate account of what he does remember.”

The engineer is not required to talk to the board, he said, but “we do find that in most cases the people involved in these accidents do want to talk to us because they’re interested in safety; they want to find out what happened to prevent it from happening again.”

While the train’s speed has clearly become the focus of the probe, investigators have not ruled out other causes for the crash.

The safety board said that it had released the accident site to Amtrak and that all the cars involved in the wreck were being moved to a secure location in Delaware. A 3-D laser scan of the two remaining rail cars was completed Thursday, the board said, recording their exact positions. Sumwalt said officials would also examine video recorded by a front-facing camera on the train’s locomotive, and conduct testing of the brake system.

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Though officials have not released the names of the dead, most have been identified by family members, co-workers and friends. They are Justin Zemser, 20, a midshipman at the Naval Academy; Jim Gaines, 48, a video software architect from Plainsboro, N.J., who worked for the Associated Press; Rachel Jacobs, 39, the chief executive of ApprenNet, an education technology company in Philadelphia; Abid Gilani, a senior vice president of Wells Fargo; Derrick Griffith, 42, a dean at Medgar Evers College; Laura Finamore, 47, an executive at the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield; Robert Gildersleeve, 45, who worked for Ecolab, an environmental engineering firm; and Giuseppe Piras, an Italian businessman.