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Philadelphia Amtrak wreck survivor: A 'big bang,' then unconsciousness

| Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, 1:36 p.m.
FILE - In this May 13, 2015, file photo, emergency personnel work at the scene of a derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train headed to New York. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, for Brandon Bostian charged in a Philadelphia derailment that killed eight in 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FILE - In this May 13, 2015, file photo, emergency personnel work at the scene of a derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train headed to New York. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, for Brandon Bostian charged in a Philadelphia derailment that killed eight in 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Brandon Bostian, center, the Amtrak engineer charged in a Philadelphia derailment that killed eight in 2015, arrives for a preliminary hearing at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Brandon Bostian, center, the Amtrak engineer charged in a Philadelphia derailment that killed eight in 2015, arrives for a preliminary hearing at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

PHILADELPHIA — A passenger who survived a deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia more than two years ago testified Tuesday that she could feel the train speed up as it approached a curve, then heard a “big bang” as her car hurtled off the tracks and she wound up unconscious in the woods.

Blair Berman, who rode in the severely damaged first car of the train, testified at a preliminary hearing for the Amtrak engineer who's facing criminal charges in the derailment that killed eight people and injured about 200.

As the train accelerated and began “going way too fast,” 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.

Brandon Bostian, 34, the engineer aboard the Washington-to-New York train, faces charges that include involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment in a case that was pursued only after a victim's family intervened and a judge overruled city prosecutors who had said there wasn't enough evidence against him.

Bostian's lawyers are trying to get the case dismissed, arguing in court documents that the unusual circumstances leading to Bostian's arrest, as the statute of limitations loomed, had violated his due process rights. A judge will decide after Tuesday's hearing whether to order Bostian to stand trial.

Federal safety investigators have said Bostian accelerated to 106 mph in a 50 mph curve, concluding that he lost his bearings while distracted by an incident with a nearby train.

Berman, who suffered several broken bones, testified that she encountered Bostian when she regained consciousness — barefoot and unable to put weight on her leg — and began screaming for help.

She said Bostian initially refused to let her use his phone, then relented, and she called her father.

Berman, who was living in New York at the time of the crash and was heading home after a Mother's Day weekend in the Philadelphia area, said Bostian never identified himself as a member of the crew, but was able to tell her where they were and what train they were on.

Philadelphia officer Michael Maresca, who was among the first to respond to the May 12, 2015, crash, said he found bodies and severed limbs along the tracks and train cars that were “tossed aside like kid's toys.” The car in which Berman rode was “twisted like a tin can,” he said.

A judge ordered the charges against Bostian based on a private criminal complaint that lawyers for victim Rachel Jacobs' family filed after the Philadelphia district attorney's office declined to pursue the case.

Bostian's legal team argued the judge's decision to approve the charges “unilaterally infringed” on the district attorney's prosecutorial discretion. His lawyers include Brian McMonagle, who recently left Bill Cosby's defense team after reaching a deadlock in his June sex assault trial.

The district attorney's office concluded it had “no evidence” he acted with criminal intent and insufficient evidence to prove he acted with intent or “conscious disregard” for the passengers' safety.

State prosecutors are now handling the criminal case.

Bostian told National Transportation Safety Board investigators he could only remember speeding up for an 80 mph straightaway and then hitting the brakes a few minutes later as he felt his body lurch and the locomotive start to tip over.

The NTSB found no evidence that Bostian was impaired or using a cellphone. The agency also called Amtrak's long failure to implement automatic speed control throughout the busy Northeast Corridor a contributing factor.

Bostian, on unpaid administrative leave from Amtrak, is free under a bond arrangement: As long as he shows up for court dates he won't have to pay anything, but if he fails to appear he'd have to pay the full amount, $81,000.

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