PR pro who survived Amtrak crash slams railroad's crisis comms efforts

PR pro Andrew Brenner survived the tragic Amtrak crash in Philadelphia this week.

PR pro who survived Amtrak crash slams railroad's crisis comms efforts

NEW YORK: PR pro Andrew Brenner, who suffered back injuries as a result of the Amtrak train that fatally crashed on Tuesday, said he finds the railroad’s crisis comms approach "upsetting and annoying."

Tuesday was Brenner’s last day working at Widmeyer Communications as assistant VP, a role he had held for nearly three years. After work, he jumped on the Amtrak train headed from Washington, DC, to New York City, where he is taking on a new position as senior manager of global communications for Rockefeller Foundation organization 100 Resilient Cities.

Brenner was lounging in the train’s rear car, had taken his shoes and socks off, and was reading through papers to get ready for the first day at his new job. Then the train derailed in Philadelphia.

"Everything happened really suddenly; it wasn’t like something had been going wrong," he said. "Everybody got tossed across the train, including me, and I am not a little guy."

Even the train seats were uprooted in the crash and "flew around like Lego pieces," he added.

Fortunately, no one in Brenner’s car was severely hurt, and within five minutes, a plain-clothed police officer was ushering people off the train. Emergency services arrived, identifying passengers who needed immediate medical attention, and soon after, everyone else was loaded onto city buses headed for local hospitals.

Brenner ended up at Aria Health – Torresdale hospital. He described the emergency services’ response as quick and organized, both at the scene of the crash and at the hospital.

"I know people train for that kind of thing, and since 9/11 cities have put an emphasis on being ready for disasters and attacks," he said. "It really felt like things were as under control as they could be."

Brenner was less impressed with Amtrak’s response to those affected by the accident. He explained that two Amtrak police officers at the hospital were "less than helpful."

"I didn’t understand what they were doing there," he said of the police. "I told them my luggage was still on the train, and asked if they had advice for what I should do to get it. They said they didn’t know, but they gave me a number to call for possible help."

That evening, Brenner tweeted that he had been on the train, but was OK. A number of reporters reached out to him in response, but he still has not been contacted by Amtrak.

Brenner waited until Thursday morning to call Amtrak’s emergency line to inquire about his luggage.

"They said they weren’t sure yet what the protocol is going to be for that, then they transferred me to their customer service department where I had to do a claim," he said. "I had to wait on hold for 30 minutes before someone was able to talk to me." 

The way Amtrak has been communicating to the public about the incident has been "upsetting and annoying," specifically, the press conference held by Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman on Thursday, said Brenner.

At the conference, Boardman explained that Amtrak began installing positive train control in the 1990s.

"We had to change a lot of things on the corridor to make it work, and we’re very close," he said. "We have delivered a leadership role in positive train control in the United States."

Brenner said that it appeared Boardman was going "out of his way" to defend Amtrak’s safety record.

"He is going to defend Amtrak’s record when he is standing in front of a mess?" said Brenner. "And you are going to talk about when service is going to resume while I am scheduling an MRI appointment, because the person running your train messed up royally?"

Instead, Brenner said Amtrak should be laying out exactly how the company is going to make sure every future train ride is as safe as possible. The railroad needs to build trust with the general public, which Brenner said was already lacking.

"Amtrak has been focused on their priorities, which is trying to get rail service back up," he said. "The media and a lot of political figures have done a much better job keeping on message with regards to what is important on this matter, which is figuring out what happened, making sure it never happens again, and holding [the appropriate people] responsible for what happened." 

For his new job at 100 Resilient Cities, Brenner was planning on living in DC, but working in New York during the week. He explained that he was relying on Amtrak as his main mode of transport.

"I don’t see myself getting back on an Amtrak train; I don’t trust Amtrak," he said.

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