Amtrak train from Washington derails, Jewish passenger missing

Rachel Jacobs, with her husband and child. Photo credit: JTA
Rachel Jacobs, with her husband and child.
Photo credit: JTA

A New York-bound Amtrak train originating in Washington, D.C. derailed Tuesday night in Philadelphia, killing at least seven and injuring more than 200 people, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said.

Among the missing is Rachel Jacobs, 39, a Jewish executive from Manhattan. She was recently hired CEO of Philadelphia-based online education startup ApprenNet. Jacobs lives with her husband and 2-year-old son in New York. The 1997 graduate of Swarthmore College also has a Columbia Business School MBA.

Northeast Regional Train 188 was carrying 238 passengers and five crew members when all seven cars — six passenger cars and the engine — went off the tracks in the Port Richmond section of the city just after 9 p.m., after departing from 30th Street Station.

Many Washington area Jews frequently ride Amtrak along the Northeast Corridor. One of them is William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America, who was on an Amtrak train heading back to Washington from New York on Monday night.

“As I was hearing the news and watching the news on TV I could very much picture the bodies being thrown around and the laptops flying through the air and the sense of panic,” said Daroff. “I can just imagine how unprepared any of us are for that to occur.”

Rabbi Levi Haskelevich, director of the Lubavitch House at University of Pennsylvania, was at home when the incident occurred and rushed to Temple University hospital, where many of the injured were taken. He checked in with victims in the emergency room and consoled family members waiting in a building across the street.

“I spoke to everybody and checked in with them. It happened to be that some of them were Jewish and they were very appreciative that somebody came down and checked in,” Haskelevich said.

One of his students was on the train, but escaped without injuries.

“It’s a train we all take, Philadelphians to New York, many of us take. So it hit very close to home,” added Haskelevich.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, National Transportation Safety Board investigators are focusing on the possibility that speed may have been a factor in the deadly incident. The train may have been traveling in excess of 100 miles an hour as it entered the sharp curve, where speed is limited to 50 miles per hour. However, the black box data recorder is being analyzed and the investigation is continuing.

“I’m interested in hearing the preliminary ruling from the NTSB about what happened,” said Daroff. “Was is it the fault of the engineer? Was it the fault of a crumbling infrastructure?”

Congressional Democrats and the White House are criticizing House Republicans for passing a bill that slashes Amtrak’s budget by $251 million, to $1.1 billion, for the next fiscal year. The Obama administration has called for boosting Amtrak funding to $2.45 billion and on Wednesday Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee blocked a bid by Democrats to increase Amtrak’s budget by more than $1 billion, including $556 million targeted for the Northeast Corridor.

“It is deeply troubling that my Republican colleagues defeated an amendment to fully fund Amtrak just hours after this tragic rail crash,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said. The top Democrat on the Appropriations panel added that “starving rail of funding will not enable safer train travel.”

Daroff said while he will be more cognizant of safety factors, he will be boarding an Amtrak train again soon.

“At the end of the day I’m sure statistically it’s more dangerous to cross the street in Rockville than it is to take a train.”

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